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.
Yesterday afternoon, I set out solo in the sunshine. I love the people in my house and I love my house; yet the need to escape was powerful. To move.
On the busier sections of path, snippets of conversation floated past:
“The single-best way to leave a legacy, guaranteed, is to have a lot of children—” (Spoken by one young man to another, both wearing sunglasses, coming toward me on the trail.)
“Actually, I had a bit of a set-back this week. My tennis friend called and said ‘I have bad news….'” (Two women crossing my path diagonally.)
The sun was so warm, I took off my scarf and hat, unzipped my jacket.
On the quiet stretches of path, I told myself stories about who I wanted to be, who I remembered being. Who knows what a calling is anyway? I miss interacting with people. I miss working with students, I miss coaching. I said this out loud, so I could really hear it.
I listened to an On Being podcast three times yesterday, while mixing and kneading bread dough, doing laundry, searing a small roast, chopping veggies (though not while out walking): Krista Tippett’s conversation with Ariel Burger. I listened and listened and listened, trying to absorb the wisdom.
Do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
It sounds very basic: a recipe for being a witness, not a spectator.
I wondered what to do if the person being humiliated was yourself; what then? (The podcast does not discuss power.) I see people who are hurt and wounded by their interactions with systems designed to crush and humiliate them, hurt by people acting within those systems, and I think: what protection is there against this cruelty, injustice? We are asking too much of individuals to fight for themselves, by themselves.
Maybe that’s the power of witness? If you can, if you are able, be a witness, a true witness, and do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
Be a blessing.
Be a blessing? How? Alone in my studio, writing stories? With my family? Reaching out to friends?
We are also called to be as strangers to each other, to recognize and acknowledge that others can and will surprise us, if we allow them to. If we approach each other (strangers, family, friends) neither from a place of fear, nor from a place of over-familiarity, what will we learn?
To be a blessing is to push against, as well as to meet. My ideas, experiences, perspective, beliefs will not match up perfectly with yours, no matter how we might wish it. Unity is not conformity.
The divine in me sees the divine in you.
But you are not me. I am not you.
To be blessed is to be given something to carry. A blessing can be heavy. It can ask a lot of the other, the one who is seen. As a coach, as a teacher, as a parent, what I hope to communicate is the deep value in trying; not striving, necessarily, it doesn’t have to be so strenuous; trying. To say: I tried, is to acknowledge your own effort. To say: You tried, is to see someone else’s, to name it.
There’s a lightness to trying. There’s acceptance that trying doesn’t always lead to success. There’s room for surprise. Experiment. Consider. Be blessed. Leap. What if you try and you discover something different, something unexpected, something you weren’t looking for? Isn’t that wonderful too? To try is to leave room for curiosity.
- 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.
We’re in such a trippy time warp here in continuing lockdown (with cases heading in the right direction again, so there’s hope). But there’s always hope! And I’m noticing that hope comes in the form of a small change or surprise or pleasure that can be found, really, in any day. Even the dullest of days.
For example: supper! It happens every single day, but we all look forward to it. I currently have the time to put more thought and preparation into the evening meal, and it is worth it. We gather, talk, eat good food. It’s simple, it’s satisfying.
Another example: snow falling from the sky!
And: the days getting incrementally longer. It’s 5:19PM as I type this and it’s still light out!
Also: group activities!
With my word group, I’m doing a 2-week tea-cleanse, in which we brew and sip teas throughout the day, and connect with our words and with each other via email, and maybe, too, via psychic powers.
With my family, we are doing reward charts! Who knew? It began when I offered to print up a chart for our youngest, who needed encouragement to practice more often (online school is sapping his motivation). As soon as people spotted his reward chart, it quickly spiralled. Now everyone has one (mostly with the goal of practicing a musical instrument every day, although Kevin gets a pass—he’s drawing instead). When everyone earns 10 stars, we get a pizza party! Individuals can earn a separate reward for every 25 stars. The rules and rewards were discussed and agreed upon and planned for at some length; and tonight is the night: Pizza Party! Whoo-hoo! We even had a sign-up sheet so people could bring something extra (like a fruit tray, or Scotch mints, or a cake). We’re planning to watch a movie too (“Soul”). [Update: What a wonderful movie to share as a family; laughter, music, and the exploration of big existential questions. You should watch it too!]
Finally, on the group activity front, I’m connecting virtually as much as possible through yoga classes on Zoom, texts with friends and family, Zoom calls with my Grandma, and writing time with imaginary characters (that counts too, right?). Today I tried a midday movement class out of New York city that, frankly, seemed to be inviting me nap for an hour on my heated studio floor while making fractional movements with my arms and legs. So maybe that was a one-time thing. But I tried it!
Explore: that’s what’s giving me hope, and purpose, and spark right now. Try it, sign up, reach out, say yes to something different and new, even if it’s just challenging yourself to cook a meal with the weird passed-over ingredients haunting your cupboards (my supper plan for Thursday!).
I’d love to hear what’s giving you hope, in small surprising ways, right now.
Ever get the feeling that too much is on your mind, so instead of trying to say it all, you say nothing instead? Yeah. That’s where I’m at. That’s where I’ve been at for a few weeks now. I’ve also been reasonably busy, trying to seize all the moments in all the days that have come calling. It was sunny and warm for a full five days, so I was outside as much as possible with friends and family. Then one of my kids had a migraine for three days last week. I haven’t been able to run, as the nagging pain has returned, so I’ve been experimenting with other forms of self-soothing. Early morning dog walk: unsuccessful, did not provide enough endorphins, although the dog was thrilled with all the new scents to sniff. Riding the spin bike: much more successful, with the added bonus of delightfully cheesy Canadian entertainment. (While spinning, I watch Murdoch Mysteries, and I’ve been told that I talk out loud to the characters, muttering things like “Don’t go in there, George! You’re going to regret it!” or “It’s the brother. It has to be the brother!”)
Up till last Friday, I was working full-tilt on novel revisions, and now need to pause and consult with my editor to make sure we’re on the same page. It’s been fun, and a relief, and an escape, immersing myself in an imaginary world, where imaginary characters make imaginary choices and try to figure out how to mend themselves, or inflict mending on others.
My corkboard is mostly empty, but for a number of physio exercises — I’ve drawn a series of reminders for myself on index cards, including instructions for stretching exercises that are meant to get a person up from her desk at least once an hour. (It has yet to happen, but a person can hope to change her ways!) The other items on the corkboard are a watercolour of two people in a tree, inspiration for my novel; a drawing of hands that look to be in prayer, to remind myself that my work requires patience and grace, and also as a reminder of the novel’s theme of spiritual searching; and some sketches that show the steps for making a labyrinth, though it looks more like I’ve drawn a strange, childlike version of the brain. Not on the corkboard, but critical to the revision process, is a sketched-out structure for the novel, done in a kind of personal visual code that I find very satisfying and comforting to look at.
Tomorrow, my oldest daughter turns 18. I’ve ordered donuts for pick-up. I’m planning to bike to pick them up, no matter how cold. Also this week, I’m introducing a conversation at the Wild Writers Festival on Thursday, 7-9PM, between two wonderful writer, Lamees Al Ethari and Antonio Michael Downing: here’s the registration information. And on Friday morning, I’m going to read my picture book Jammie Day to a friend’s kindergarten classroom. These last two events, needless to say, are happening online. One of my goals for this pandemic time is to become more tech-savvy; or at least, less-tech-anxious.
I’m grateful for plans. No matter how small. Like those donuts.
Almost every day, I lie on my office floor. Sometimes I take a nap. It’s a glorious floor for napping. More often, I do those physio exercises 0n the corkboard. I meditate, or listen to a podcast. Almost every day, my eyes fill with tears. It seems like a way to live now, on the verge of tears, but also attempting to strengthen and bolster oneself, to practice breathing, to pay attention to the pain, not to ignore it. Not to be overwhelmed by it.
Till next time—
I’ve been pausing to take photos of the morning, the early morning light and sky and trees, as they change. The days are shorter, and now I run in darkness especially when it’s recently rained, as it had last night. This morning I’d already decided that I would stop at the bottom of a hill on the opposite side of the park, to get a different view than I usually do. I’d pulled out my cellphone when the sky filled up with birds. They flew toward me and then on and on, a great stream of them; it looked like they were heading north, not south.
I don’t wear my glasses to run, and the result is photos that are often slightly (or wildly) out of focus.
But my writing life feels more in focus, both this week and last. I’ve been working on revisions, and have been grateful for the energy to be methodical in my planning and execution. Last week, when I was feeling so low, the novel was a complete escape; I needed it, I could see that. I needed something big and whole to tether me to purpose, something outside of myself, that would carry me out of my body and mind into the bodies and minds of other people. Characters. Avatars embodying my questions and testing my theories about how to be (or not to be).
Fiction is escape. Writing fiction is immersive. Like plunging into another bloodstream, or being set free into a new landscape that isn’t mine to tend and repair, only to wander through like a voyeur. Looking through windows. Inside cupboards. What’s on the bathroom floor? I don’t have to pick it up, clean it up, I just get to snoop through imaginary rooms, imaginary weather, climb imaginary trees, hum imaginary tunes in someone else’s dreamy voice. Feel imaginary sadness; that too. And I get to come through it, by piecing together a puzzle so all the edges fit and make sense, the way real life never does, never can.
This morning, I was wearing headphones, listening to my “Run Fast” playlist. Missy Elliot was playing. But I could hear the birds.
(As I ran on, up that hill and turned down a very dark stretch, and the birds kept coming, all I could think was: Please don’t poop on my head!)
Goodbye, goodbye, hello, hello, good morning.
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