photo credit: Claire Cameron
I’ve been on and off this weekend. It’s harder to be on than off, and I wish sometimes to have been born an extrovert, feeding off the energy of being out there in the world, but the truth is that I’m the one wearing the ear plugs, drinking the cold coffee, in the comfy sweatshirt and crocs, hair in a messy bun, smelly dogs snoring nearby, cozy, informal, lost in her own head. And when I’m asked to be a woman with a measure of formal poise and polish, it takes some inner cinching, like I have to put on a corset and sniff smelling salts and throw my shoulders back in an effort to practice posture taught in some long-ago comportment class.
Yet that is part of what I do, as a writer. It’s part of the job. I don’t just stay at home in my comfy pants. When requested, I go out and address an audience, I attempt a performance. While trying to be myself.
I do my best, I guess, is what I’m saying, in a situation that takes me out of my comfort zone.
I don’t know why I feel compelled to be ever-improving, but my approach is that being taken out of one’s comfort zone is a good exercise for the spirit. It can be humbling. It can be enlightening. It can be neither of those things, and still be a good and decent practice to attempt.
Eden Mills Writers Festival, Sept. 14, 2014
At my launch party, I was one writer among friends, family, neighbours. It was so easy to be on. At Eden Mills Writers Festival yesterday, I was one writer among many writers, none of them old friends, family or neighbours. It was much more challenging to be on. There was a moment when I plunked down in the one free chair in the cottage which functioned as the “artists’ room” while Eleanor Catton, fresh off a plane from New Zealand, sat on the floor nearby. I couldn’t think of a thing to say to her. (Should I have offered her the chair?) I was ridiculously tired and it was only 4PM. I’d done my reading, signed books, talked to people, circulated, listening to other readings, found myself in tears listening to Miriam Toews’s, talked to more people, finally looking for a place to rest for a bit — but the rest I craved was for my mind, not my body. So many good writers, all in one crowded cottage room! It felt like ideas were everywhere and I could not properly absorb any of them. I grabbed the empty chair and sat like a stone. I felt, I guess, overwhelmed by the circumstances. (It probably didn’t help that I was wearing red rubber boots.) What to say to Heather O’Neill? Lynn Coady? Miriam Toews? David Bezmozgis? (I don’t know!)
Maybe I’ll think of something next time. This is just the beginning of the fall touring season here in literary Canada, and many of these same writers will be popping up at festivals elsewhere. Maybe what I’m feeling is a touch of impostor syndrome. Maybe it’s basic shyness. Maybe it’s an excess of stimulus. Maybe it’s cognitive dissonance. Maybe it’s nothing I need to overcome, just accept–that I will be tired after reading and speaking to people, that I will need to sit still like a stone for a bit to recover. I did recover. The afternoon went on. I made a new friend, a poet from Winnipeg named Katherena Vermette, who won the Governor-General’s Award for poetry last fall. I ate pie sitting beside Leon Rooke, across from Thomas King. (Though I didn’t know what to say to them either, truth be told.)
Perhaps it’s telling that my most cherished moment of the weekend was an “off” moment. What I mean is that I wasn’t “on,” I wasn’t performing, I wasn’t trying to connect in any way. I was running a race. It’s been nearly two years since I ran a race. On a last-minute whim, I signed up for a half-marathon that covered country roads not far from here. I went alone and ran alone. My watch didn’t even work, so I just ran. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t taxing, if you know what I mean. I knew what I needed to do. I waited for all the things I expected to happen to happen, and they did. I pushed harder and faster as the race went on. My mind lost the capacity to do anything but propel me forward. It hurt and I knew it wouldn’t hurt me. For motivation during the last couple of kilometres, I imagined my 11-year-old daughter telling me not to give up–You’re almost done! I imagined her saying in a slightly exasperated tone. Don’t slow down now! So I didn’t. I crossed the finish line alone. I drove home alone. I went on with my ordinary every day, practically bursting with pride at the speed I’d managed, the pace I’d kept.
But it isn’t quite fair to compare these two things. The race was undertaken for the joy of it. The readings are undertaken to bring my book out into the world. I may know what to expect from the former, but I don’t know what to expect from the latter. I don’t know how hard to push myself, how hard to push, even. It might hurt, and maybe I’m afraid it will hurt me, too. I don’t know if there’s a finish line, or whether I’ll recognize it if there is one. I don’t know or entirely trust my stamina, my energy, my own desire. I don’t know the parameters. There is no script. Most of all, I don’t want to be alone while I do it.
I feel like I should mark the moment somehow. Today, my third book and first novel, GIRL RUNNER, is officially published here in Canada. Dreaming of this day as a teenager in high school, plotting and hoping to become a real writer, what did I imagine it would be like? Feel like? I no longer know. There is excitement, but it is muted with a weight I probably wouldn’t have guessed, as a teenager. There is satisfaction, joy, even, but tempered by perspective, by years of struggle, by a kind of wondering at my own persistence and determination, and I don’t mean that in a self-flattering way — I mean, I wonder at my ridiculous, stubborn refusal to give up this singular dream, even when it made absolutely no sense, financially or practically or even artistically. I had to write a lot of very bad prose on my way to learning how to write like I wanted to be able to write.
I’m thinking this morning of writers I have admired. How I loved L.M. Montgomery’s stories of orphaned girls, soaked though they may have been in sentimental romance. I didn’t want to grow up to discover that Montgomery’s own life had been unhappy. I wanted her as happy as her heroines, as plucky, as daring, as beloved. There can be such a distance between what a writer puts onto the page and her own life. We may write what we wish to have been or done, we may write to seek forgiveness for a wrong or to seek peace, we may write to escape, because the imagination is powerful enough to carry us somewhere else, somewhere better, for awhile.
I’m not sure where I fit into this, exactly, as a writer and a human being.
I was thinking today that my ever-present theme is the connection between past and present, and how the past leaves its imprints on the present. I have an interest in history (thanks, Dad!). But it isn’t the interest of an historian, who tries to piece together from available evidence the most factually accurate narrative. It’s the interest of a story-teller, who needs facts only as stones tossed into a wide lake, so she can see the ripples spreading out across the disturbed surface of what only seems to be.
I’m going hifalutin’ this morning, I see.
I wonder how L.M. Montgomery felt when her first book was published? And her next, and her third? How did she feel when Anne of Green Gables became so beloved that the author herself was subsumed by her invented character? Isn’t it strange how these characters we create can come to seem more real than us? That is a possibility I’m considering this morning, as I think about Aganetha Smart, the girl runner in my book, and Juliet, of my JULIET STORIES, and the man with the hair hat, from my first collection HAIR HAT. I don’t know quite how to express this idea, but it seems those characters are more real, more knowable, more plausible than I myself could possibly be. I’m human, after all. I’ve done all kinds of things that make little sense, or don’t fit neatly into a plot or storyline. I’m contradictory. Sometimes I’m selfish, sometimes generous, sometimes oblivious, sometimes keenly attuned to the needs of others, sometimes a good friend, and no doubt, sometimes not. I’m trying, like we are all.
But my characters, they’re there, fully formed, on the page, comprehensible. Complete in a way I’ll never be.
Tonight, I’m going to the launch party for GIRL RUNNER here in Waterloo. It’s a party for the book, for the character of Aggie and all that she is, all of her accomplishments, and the richness of her life. I’m going to celebrate her existence. How she came to me, and came through me, is a mystery I’ll never know or be able to explain. This is not something I could have imagined, as an aspiring writer in high school — how separate from my creation I would feel. How grateful. How small. How glad.
Sunday morning soccer, Owen Sound, Ontario
The house is so quiet.
You know when you wish for something and then it arrives and you wonder why you were wishing for it? That’s what this morning feels like, and it’s a taste of the months to come, after the kids return to school: house empty during school hours, just me and the dogs, no one dashing into my office to demand/beg/complain/tattle, no need for ear plugs, no discoveries en route to the bathroom of kitchen disasters and the remains of lunch. Just me.
Interrupted by my own distractions, demands, hunger, anxieties.
This week, one child is at a friend’s cottage. Two are at overnight camp. The fourth is home, but is at a soccer camp during the day.
Here he is at supper last night, playing the part of only child without apparent effort. “I can’t see without my glasses,” he joked. He helped Kevin clean the back porch, which we are finally painting after years of neglect. He was affable, talkative, and snuggly after supper, playing a game with Kevin, brushing teeth, putting on PJs, reading a story with me.
But then it came time for bed. And suddenly the emptiness of the house struck him too. His lonely room, no sister reading by flashlight or humming her “Suzi dog songs” in the bunk overhead. Couldn’t he sleep with me? At the end of the bed? On the floor? Here, or here?
It’s kind of how I feel this morning. I can’t quite settle. After longing for alone time, I miss the mess.
I don’t know how someone so strongly inclined toward solo pursuits got so lucky as to acquire a life filled with chaos, but lucky I am. And oh how I appreciate the gift of disruption in this quiet quiet house. Kevin and I took advantage of having built-in babysitters home on Saturday, and slipped out to see Boyhood. We loved it. It’s the parents who stick with me, complicated, loving, mistaken sometimes, sometimes wise, trying even while they know they’re failing in some profound way, but that’s what we do as parents–try even while we see ourselves being clumsy, repeating mistakes. The scene that haunts me today is the mother crying in her kitchen as her son packs up his room to leave for college. “This is the saddest day of my whole life,” she says (or I remember her saying). “I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know you’d be so happy to be leaving.”
The other piece that sticks with me is how much advice the boy is given by well-meaning adults over the course of his boyhood. And how rarely that advice is what he wants or needs. Yet how compelled the adults are to offer it. Makes me want to hold my advice-giving-tongue and instead listen, ask questions, be around.
* A note on the photos: these are #unedited #cameraphone. My photo computer died last week, and until it returns to life, I am without editing options, or the ability to download pictures from my Nikon. So for the meantime, I’ve exchanged quality for spontaneity. There’s always an upside to the down.
This photo is essentially unrelated to our weekend. What I like about it is the small picture within the bigger picture: the mirror looking backward at a scene that appears to be rendered in black and white, while the almost colourless landscape whooshes past out the window. It’s like a metaphor for a blog post.
I haven’t had a lot to say this week, here in Blogland. I think my thoughts have turned to subjects too large to be confined to this space. It isn’t the medium for the long-form essay; nor is it Twitter-sized. It’s like a scrapbook: photos, captions, a snapshot capturing a fragment of the here and now. I’ve been thinking about renovating my blog so that it can display photos more prominently and text more colourfully, but that’s a big project for a solo artist who can’t seem to keep the counters clean in her actual abode, though she did just fold several days’ worth of laundry, leaving it in yet another basket for her children to put away in their drawers, which they may someday do, someday. One lives in hope.
I ran 23 kilometres yesterday. It was about two kilometres more than my legs wished to go, but I’d planned my route slightly ambitiously. I was aiming for a two-hour run, and it took me slightly more than two hours. I’m oddly un-achy today. Yet oddly grumpy, it must be confessed. I’ve run the vacuum cleaner down the stairs, threatened to give away one child’s computer (as in, physically picked up said computer and carted it toward the great outdoors where I promised to hand it to any stranger passing by), and now I’ve wisely barricaded myself into my office. One of my goals for today is to plan out the summer: last summer I paid the older children to babysit the younger children, including making lunches, and not using video games as entertainment, an entirely successful experiment we intend to recreate this summer.
It’s Victoria Day, and a holiday here in Canada, so I’m getting a taste of the summer that must not happen: everyone underfoot and bored and sulking about the paucity of electronic time and asking for snacks and ignoring the simplest instructions whilst I fold laundry and howl about wasted opportunities and my envy of Mordecai Richler, whose biography still haunts me several years after reading it. (I’m not making this up. The howl of “I wish I were Mordecai Richler!” arises surprisingly frequently when I’m in a self-pitying mood: imagine having someone to cook you fine meals and take your children to their appointments and keep the daily annoyances at bay while you work your ass off doing the only thing you really want to do).
Except take a small step back, Carrie. Do you really want to wallow in envy?
And another small step, please. Mordecai Richler was making a killer living doing the only thing he wanted to do, and while I’m doing fine as far as these things go, basically Kevin and I must share the domestic and professional tasks between us to keep our family afloat. In short, we both have to: cook the meals (some of the time), take the children to their appointments (some of the time), and make space for the things we really want to do (some of the time).
And, hey. Would I really want it any other way? I appear to be feeling better, suddenly. It must be the barricade. And the writing. The writing always helps. I can hear, through my ear plugs, children gathering to make their own lunches (ramen noodles) and the vacuum running (Kevin). And now the piano is being practiced. And the sun is shining. Here are some flowers from our backyard:
Let me leave you with a few of the wonderful things I’ve read this weekend:
* Ian Brown’s essay on the mulberry tree that once stood in his back yard (aside: I harbour a deeply held fantasy of becoming the female version of Ian Brown)
* Anakana Schofield’s books Q&A in The Irish Times, which is as enormously amusing as one could ever imagine a books Q&A being
* Oy! Feh! So! by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Gary Clement, a children’s picture book that is CJ’s absolute favourite right now, and which is quite a lot of fun to read out loud, especially if you, like me, enjoy doing voices at great volume right before bedtime
* All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews, which is kind of wrecking me even while it opens me, like all great books do, taking you apart and putting you back together, emotionally and morally, without telling you what to think. I love Miriam Toews.
Alert: rambling post ahead. My thoughts are failing to cohere around a single theme, and so I shall offer a messy multitude.
Above, my desk. Coffee cup, cellphone, book I’m currently reading, computer-now-used-mainly-for-processing-photos-as-it’s-dying-a-painful-death, and calendar. Good morning, this desk seems to greet me. I didn’t run because the roads are super-icy, so I didn’t set my alarm, so I overslept, so the getting-everyone-out-the-door portion of the morning was hairy, so I decided to walk the little kids partway to school, so Fooey forgot her glasses, so I had to run back home to fetch them, so I had to drive anyway to get them to her, so I drove her big sister as well, so I stopped for coffee and a croissant at Sabletine on my way home. Ergo, I’m over-caffeinated.
the days are packed, and so is this office
I’m not sure my office could accommodate much more than it already does. It’s a small space. And yet it feels almost miraculously expansive. At times I think that could be a metaphor for life itself. Look at what’s going on here: we’ve got a reader and exerciser walking on the treadmill (she read for TWO MILES on Monday evening!); we’ve got another child, legs and arms just visible in the bottom of the photo, lying on the warm tile floor soaking up some doggie affection; we’ve got books, light, art, work, family, all tucked into this small space.
Some days feel like they have themes or threads tying them together.
Saturday was “free stuff” day, as mentioned in my previous post. By early afternoon, we’d received a free treadmill and a free foosball table. That evening, Kevin and I went to the Princess theatre for dinner-and-a-movie, using a gift certificate given to us over a year ago. (We saw Philomena, which I recommend, although we were a good twenty years younger than anyone else in the theatre). We also scored “free” babysitting from Albus, who agreed to be in charge during our absence in exchange for pizza. On the walk to the theatre, I found a pair of i-pod headphones lying in a puddle, which I decided to rescue rather than leave to ruination in the puddle. I feel slightly guilty about that free find.
Yesterday’s theme was good news on the professional front, with hairy/heart-rending complications on the domestic front.
The professional news is nothing to share, particularly; more to do with ongoing conversations and future plans. But it was lovely to receive pleasant messages in my inbox sprinkled throughout the day.
Not much else went smoothly. I’d planned to pick the younger kids up from school to take them to swim lessons. I sent a note to CJ’s teachers to tell them “no bus,” please. I arrived just as the bell rang to discover the note had been missed, and CJ had been sent to the bus line. I tore through the school to retrieve him (thankfully, in time), but by the time we got back to our original meeting spot, Fooey had come and gone, all in a panic at not seeing us there, so we waited and waited and waited not knowing what was happening while Fooey ran around the school (it’s become very sprawling since they built on an addition). By the time we found each other, she was breathless and in tears, and we were late.
Meantime, Albus texted to say he was at a friend’s house, which left me worried about AppleApple, home alone — did she even have a key to get in? Did she know about her soccer practice, starting early? I texted Kev to call home, and added, “You will have to do supper.”
I’d planned to run at the track during swim lessons. By the time people had changed and gone to the bathroom and made it into the water, I had about twenty minutes total to run. So I ran as fast as I could, round and round and round, blowing off steam. As I helped CJ shower and change, I realized I was pouring with sweat … and that my best-laid plan did not include time for me to change (let alone shower!) between dropping the kids at home and racing with AppleApple to the early soccer practice. Suffice it to say that we arrived slightly late at the indoor field, my face lightly splashed with water from Fooey’s shower, wearing decent clothes.
The heart-rending bit went like this. I met a friend for lunch. We had a lovely time together. On the walk home, the weather warmer and sunnier than expected, we passed the social services building, and a young mother exited behind us. She was berating her child, who was no more than two, and who made not a peep. Her tone was loud and angry and caught our attention. My friend and I both kind of froze, went silent. We kept glancing over our shoulders as we walked, keeping the young woman and child in view. Should we intervene in some way? We asked each other. We didn’t know. I think it haunted us both — not knowing whether to speak up, and haunted even in the moment by the fate of this child, and by extension the fate of every child made to feel unwanted or unloved. (I must add that at no time did the child appear to be in any physical danger.)
I’m currently reading a book sent to me by my UK publisher (Two Roads): The end of your life book club, a memoir by Will Schwalbe. Read it. It’s a meditation on the shared reading experience, and the mother/son relationship, and all the while it illuminates and reflects on the particular life of the author’s mother, who is described as a woman always open to the world around her. She’s a natural leader and visionary who believes in action. She meets everyone’s eye. She asks questions of everyone she meets. She listens and responds. She never feels she knows too many people or has friends enough or worries about having too many relationships to sustain — she faces the world (and its pains and problems) with genuine welcome. I’m a bit in awe of her. I want to learn from her.
I wonder whether she would have found some entrance into the young woman’s life. I wonder, thinking it over later, whether it would have been helpful to approach and offer to watch the child or carry him to the bus stop, so the young woman would have had a moment to collect herself and burn off steam. (I didn’t think of this in the moment.)
I felt that my posture and response to the situation was fearful. I was afraid of appearing judgemental and intrusive rather than helpful. I was afraid of getting in over my head. I was afraid of having the young woman’s anger turned on me. I was thinking of the invisible enormity of the problems, hidden like the tendrils of mushrooms, underneath, and I was overwhelmed and paralyzed.
In the end, we walked on (after observing the young woman reach the bus stop with her child), unable to speak of anything other than what we’d seen, weighed-down and saddened and heart-broken, a bit. Truthfully, I don’t know whether we should have done anything differently. But I haven’t been able to let it leave my mind either.
Last week I blogged about fiction versus non-fiction, and a friend posted a link to an article titled “Based on a True Story. Or Not.” If you’ve got time to ponder the subject, go off now and read it. If you’re in a hurry, here’s my brisk summary:
The essay is about the use of autobiography in poetry. We, the reader, tend to assume that a personal-sounding poem is autobiographical. So what happens when we, the reader, discover that a personal-sounding poem is in fact fictional? Do we have a sense of being cheated out of something “real,” or of having been fooled or tricked by the poet? Why do we want so badly to know that the poet wrote out of experience rather than imagination? Why does it matter to us?
Because it does matter, at least to many of us.
I’ve visited quite a few book clubs for The Juliet Stories. There is one question asked every time, usually immediately, a variation of: “Is this story something that really happened to you?” How I answer the question probably depends on my mood, and I often feel rather weary as I try to explain my creative process. But even if I don’t welcome the question, exactly, I don’t disdain it. I’ve come to believe the question must tap into something fundamental within us, something held in common, as readers. That we come to a story looking for truth. We come looking for the connections between author and subject. We want to believe in the veracity of what’s being told. (Maybe we want to be part of the story or become closer to it, by being witnesses rather than “mere” readers.)
The closer a story appears to be to autobiography, the more jarring it is to be told: this is fiction. We’re not comfortable with something we suspect to be full of half-truths, which are also, of course, half-falsehoods. I find it very difficult to wrestle with these distinctions. I’d rather say, “None of this happened” than “Bits of this happened”; while the thought of saying “This all happened” makes my skin crawl. I’ve got no desire to be a memoirist, clearly.
But every story I’ve ever written has been inspired by a glimpse of something actual, whether it be a house I once lived in, or the memory of an emotion that washed over me in a specific situation, or an amulet from childhood, or by knowledge I’ve personally gained cooking or horseback riding or running. I get my ideas from life. But an idea isn’t a story, an emotion isn’t a story, a glimpse isn’t a story. To make a story, I imagine what might have been if life were different. I seek alternative explanations for those things I can’t explain. I go off the trail. I wonder. I make it up.
As a fiction writer, I’m not asking my readers to be witnesses, to paraphrase the conclusion of the essay cited above. I’m asking my readers to imagine.
Curious, though. What am I asking of readers here on the blog? This isn’t fiction, obviously. This is it. Here, perhaps, I’m asking you to be witnesses.
Yesterday at 9AM I wanted to write a post that listed in fine detail every damn thing I’d already accomplished since waking four hours previously; but I was too tired to do it, and instead went upstairs and fell into the oblivion of a nap. It will sound like bragging. Maybe it is. I don’t mean it to be. I myself am astonished and only want to record it because I doubt I’ll believe it years from now, the pace at which I’m currently pushing myself, wondering whether it’s too much, whether I’ll stumble, and badly. (Note: Kevin was working in Toronto yesterday, and usually shares half these duties.)
5:04 – Alarm. Brush teeth, dress.
5:11 – Daughter’s alarm. Help her get ready for swimming.
5:19 – See daughter off with carpooling friend.
5:33 – In darkness, leave house for a run on snowy roads.
6:29 – Home after 10.2km (slow; muscles never warmed up in the cold).
6:33 – Dash out with whining dogs for walk, chilled.
6:47 – Feed dogs. Shower. Dress. Scarf toast with PB.
7:00 – Wake eldest son to watch dogs and be on alert for rising children. Leave for pool. Listen to news on the radio, blast the heat.
7:15 – Pick up daughter and friend at pool. Feed them bananas. Chat.
7:25 – Drop off friend.
7:35 – Home. Feed myself and daughter poached eggs on toast.
7:55 – See friends waiting for elder son to walk to school, run out and tell them go; he’s sick. Call school to report his impending absence.
8:00 – Send daughter to bed.
8:03 – Wake small children. Dress smallest.
8:15 – Feed small children vanilla yogurt with cut-up pears. Empty dishwasher, begin filling again.
8:19 – Check lunch boxes, add desserts, make snack to put into smallest’s coat pocket for field trip, as per instructions on form sent home by teachers, lost, and then after much searching, found. Start load of laundry. Wash beans for supper.
8:29 – Get small children into outdoor clothes. Not quickly enough.
8:37 – Wake eldest daughter. Drive small children to meet friends for their walk to school (they usually walk there).
8:47 – Wake eldest daughter again. Pack her school bag.
9:01 – Drive eldest daughter to her school (she usually walks there, too).
9:10 – Check on sick eldest son, returned to bed. Make him a cup of tea.
9:20 – Crate dogs. Nap.
9:50 – Woken by whining dogs. Get up. Feel grumpy. Get on with it.