On Monday, I’ll start another “writing sabbatical” spell, two weeks devoted to further revision (and maybe to writing another grant application, if there’s time). Meanwhile, I’m tidying up my interior life, sweeping cobwebs, sorting and organizing, ticking boxes on a to-do list. Seeking courage! There’s been some volunteer work, appointments, I voted early, and morning exercise continues, including several runs with my university kids, who live near enough that our running routes can overlap.
Today, I’ve devoted my hours of quiet to stepping toward that liminal space that is revision, stepping toward the unknown. In preparation, I’ve been reading a print-out of the most recent version of the manuscript, which includes my editor’s notes. I’m marking up the pages with a black pen, responding to her questions and comments. My intention is to finish this preliminary work before Monday. Here’s hoping I can read my scrawl when I head back to working on-screen next week…
Also in preparation, I’ve been doing some free writing, at the suggestion of a therapist.
And yesterday evening, I led a Lynda Barry “X Page” exercise at the inaugural meeting of a writing club we’ve begun at the X Page, with the intention of creating continuing connection and community for those (participants and team members alike) who seek it. Anyone involved in any of our past three seasons is welcome to join. The idea is simple: an hour-long meeting, monthly, to write a story together and then read to each other. Overcoming the limitations of Zoom, that’s exactly what we did yesterday evening, and it was … incredibly moving. Those who shared their brand-new precious stories gifted us with images that were by turns tender, vulnerable, personal, unique, relatable. I remember: two hands almost touching; arms flung out wide to feel the ocean breeze; being knocked down by a wave, fully-clothed; paddling toward sunset; skin burning under a hot sun; the beauty of a remembered city; sand, wind, sun.
The prompt was “ocean” or “lake.” We wrote for 8 minutes. No editing afterward, and no critique from the listeners; a brand-new story is truly a gift, it’s come from somewhere mysterious, and if we’re lucky enough to witness its beginning, all we need to express is thanks.
I often find the X Page exercise to be revealing of one’s state of mind (I’ve observed this in my own writing, in any case). When I analyze the story that popped up for me, what I notice is my desire to be in two places at once, and a resentment that I cannot be. I notice, too, that I’m upset to have missed an opportunity to soak in a unique sensory experience, I long to have that experience in my physical vocabulary (even now, oddly enough, I feel the pull of missing out).
If you’re interested in writing your own X Page, here’s Lynda Barry, in fabulous mirrored sunglasses, leading the exercise herself.
My ocean story, below.
I am in Grandma’s sedan, we are driving from her house in a tidy town in New Jersey to the Jersey shore — the ocean. I have just gotten to spend the night at Grandma’s, which is very special, just me! My younger brothers (I have three, and one is a new baby) were not invited. Grandma made my favourite food (mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy and peas) and she took me to see the movie “Annie” with my cousin, and she bought us candy. Now Grandma is driving me back to the tiny cottage on the Jersey shore where my family is staying — Mom, Dad, brothers. The cottage belongs to Grandma and her husband, and they let us stay there every summer. I sleep in the attic with my brothers, sometimes my cousins too, crowded together. There is an outdoor shower with the floor covered in sand. To walk to the beach you pass big houses with smooth white stones or shells in their front yards.
Grandma is talking. She is telling me about a sandstorm that blew in to the beach yesterday, while I was in town with her. I am feeling a bit upset, though I don’t want her to know. I missed the sandstorm! My brothers have had an adventure that I can’t quite imagine. “Oh, you don’t want sand in your eyes,” says Grandma; but I do. I want sand in my eyes, wind whipping, the ocean wild and exciting.
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.
Week three of intensive revisions. It will take as long as it takes; but also, the work somehow needs to fit itself into the deadline. When I last revised this novel, it was pre-pandemic, and I had a ten-day window to overhaul the whole thing, and somehow I shifted into what in retrospect seems an improbable state of mind, in which I worked twelve hours a day or more, writing brand-new material, sometimes as much as 10,000 to 15,000 words a day. By the end of the process, I was pretty sure I was in an altered state, that I’d driven myself to the brink of madness, and that what I’d accomplished had been a feat of stamina and focus that seemed impossible (and unwise) ever to put myself through again.
So this round, I have more time, and I’m taking it.
I find that I can write for about 6 hours maximum, before my focus begins to wane, or my mind just shuts down, weary, out of gas, the errors and typos beginning to multiply. So I figure it’s best to stay within these limitations (which feel physical as much as mental). I’m trying to stay patient, I’ve got a solid road map to follow, and I keep assuring myself that the work will get done, it will get done. I just have to give myself space to rest, when I hit a tough spot, and time to relax in the off hours: I have to go for walks, runs, see friends. And I must use the golden hours of maximum attention for nothing but this work.
To this end, I’ve set up a vacation message on my email account, naming what I’m doing as a writing sabbatical. I’m at my desk, the message says, but I’m not available. The power of creating this message can not be understated. Why? Because it names what I’m doing as important, it outlines in simple terms my priorities. I think it’s a message to myself as much as to anyone who might be reaching out via email. The message says (to me): It is my responsibility to protect what matters. No one else will do it for me.
These photos are from this past weekend, when my daughter and I visited a friend’s new farm. It was a holiday, but I also took my laptop and worked in various locations, mostly in the car, while chauffeuring my daughter and her friends around.
When I got home yesterday evening, I finally turned down a volunteer opportunity that I’d been weighing, and really wanting to say yes to. But I realized that to say yes to this would be to squeeze my writer self. And she can only be squeezed so much before she begins to fade, to waver in her belief in herself, but also in her basic ability to get her work done. I am trying to take the lessons I’ve learned during the pandemic, which has been the most productive writing time of my entire life, and continue to apply them as the world opens: lessons about the cost of accepting (even seeking!) responsibilities atop responsibilities, commitments atop commitments. Lessons about the cost of squeezing out my writing self. Which is, at core, my fundamental self: the self I am that is not attached to anyone or anything else.
The pandemic freed me, quite a lot; it forced a change in long-held patterns. It jolted parts of me to life again. It reorganized my priorities.
I’ve seen this happen for many others, too, including my friend at the farm who until very recently was my neighbour; the leap she’s made is bigger and more challenging than the leap I need to make, to protect my space and time for writing. I watch her meet this amazingly brave and heart-led challenge and think: I BELIEVE.
Hello there. This morning, I sit down again to work on revisions for what I’m calling my “new novel,” even though it is actually quite old, a thing I’ve been working on for a very long time, years. I have at various times committed myself to working on this book even when it meant not being with my family; sacrifices abound.
I am very afraid, at times, and at other times, I set my fear aside.
Should I call you “my fear”? Do you belong to me? Are you mine? I do not think you are separate from me. I think you are of me, generated within me, and therefore also tamped down by me, or lessened or diluted, diminished, by how I relate to you. I feel you in me, recognize the effect you have on me, in my body, in my mind.
Fear, you make me irritable.
Fear, you separate me from people I love.
Maybe I need you to do this, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel comfortable, but if I am too accommodating, too connected to the people around me, the people I love, I may not be able to go deep enough to do this work.
It’s debatable, however—how deep I need to go. I think this could prove to be a practical set of revisions, more head than heart, grubby, meticulous, grinding work, patient and methodical and a bit bland. The work required by the previous round of revisions was hot as a raging fire, it took me out of myself. Do I need to leave myself to do this work? I’m going to find out.
Am I afraid of leaving myself?
I don’t think that’s my fear—I don’t think you represent that, fear.
I think I am afraid of being insufficient to the task.
I know that is what I fear.
At least I can speak to you clearly and plainly. I can say, I get you fear, and I feel the same way, but while I notice you in the room, inside my chest, roiling up my thoughts, to notice you is to acknowledge your presence, not to give you a say in how I act, the choices I make.
I will use my resources.
I will respect my ability to learn and grow.
I will honour the work that’s already gone into this project, and accept with gratitude the support of my two insightful editors.
I will believe in my abilities, skills, work ethic, command of the English language, and years of experience.
I will trust my instincts, but I will be wary of moments when I sense that I’m becoming defensive—that’s telling me something too.
Fear, I don’t know that you’re telling me anything I need to hear. I can’t stop you from warning me to be small, to be cautious, to turn away, to keep myself safe from scrutiny and therefore from harm. But the relationships and connections that surround a creative piece of work, a creative offering, are part of the experience too—and that value is incalculable, unquantifiable. And that’s what this revision is too: a complicated multi-dimensional experience.
Can’t we lean toward love, fear?
I wish I could solve you or soothe you. Will you always be here? Are you part of the puzzle? An engine too, in a way? Fear of death, fear of being left behind, left out, fear of not achieving my potential, fear of being invisible. Strange, when I write this all out, I notice that I’m not as afraid of those things as I once was. I want to be who I am: a drop in an ocean of wonder.
Dear Fear, I see you, I know you so well. Let’s get to work on this book. You can come too, I can’t stop you, but let’s try to enjoy the ride, okay? Let’s have fun with this. Let’s appreciate the privilege of this opportunity, this supported opportunity, this fortunate and complicated experience.
“Little Things” with full cast; illustrations by Tarunima Mittal
Well, in truth I can hardly remember what happened yesterday, let alone these past few months, but apparently, during the blur of lockdown and walks around the block and waiting, a few remarkable things have happened, of which I’ve been a part.
The X Page Workshop is completing its season three run TONIGHT (July 7th, 2021) with a live performance on Zoom! Tickets are free and you can register to attend right up till it starts at 7PM. I am truly in awe of what’s been accomplished by this group in 12 short weeks … on a compressed schedule … in a virtual space … Live online means accepting that some unknowns are out of our control (like, should I start worrying about a massive thunderstorm that shuts off the power? Okay, just checked the Weather Network and it’s calling for light rain over that time); but we’ve done everything we can to prepare those elements over which we do have some agency. And I think that’s the key to life, isn’t it? Prepare, and also let go. Let it be what it will be.
And here’s what it already is:
Sixteen women from the community, writing, editing, and polishing their own original, personal story.
Rehearsing it, vocal coaching, staging it, practicing it in small groups and at home.
Learning framing, lighting, how to angle the camera, troubleshooting tech issues.
Negotiating with children and pets and housemates to create a stage on which to present.
Choosing photos, props, outfits, hairstyles.
Supporting everyone else on the team and in the cast with collaboration, creative ideas, presence, encouragement, cheers. Such generosity!
Not to mention all the behind-the-scenes work to create a slideshow, program, original artwork, cohesive script, extra rehearsal time, tech support, and clear communication to keep everyone rowing in synch.
And on a personal note, there’s more work in the works, for which I am over-flowing with gratitude. As soon as this project ends, I’ll be diving into revisions for my new novel, with a planned pub date of next summer. It’s called Francie’s Got A Gun, and I’m starting to believe it will be a real thing … but you can ask me again in a month or so, when the first round of revisions are due. I plan to dive deep and stay deep till that work is complete.
I’ve also received a second grant toward the project I’m working on with my grandma. Much of the research is complete, and writing has begun; but I will be setting it aside temporarily to finish Francie. One thing at a time. One big project at a time, anyway. (I think I can keep cooking dinner and fetching veggies and doing yoga and other good summer things.) At times, it feels like I’m half-asleep, working in slow-motion, digging my way through deep tunnels, burrowing into what seem like dead ends, and then I surface and wake in wonder at all that is being accomplished, even if the pace seems whimsical, even if I lose some of the good stuff underground. I don’t know how much time I’ll get in this life, but I hope to use it all up, and make (and discover) some beautiful things along the way — ephemeral as a performance, strong as a connection, life-giving as a community, sustaining as a story, well-told.
Hope to see you tonight. And if not there, then somewhere, sometime, virtually or in real life, soon.
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