Category: Girl Runner
in Alice Munro country
This has been a good weekend, and so I must write about it, especially after my tired post last night. And I am tired, there’s no doubt, but this is also the season of gratitude and harvest, and I want to tell you that, on occasion, the “glamorous writer’s life” can actually feel, well, kinda glamorous.
On Friday evening, Kevin and I drove northwest out of the city in separate vehicles, heading for Huron County, otherwise known as Alice Munro country. The kind organizers of the Alice Munro writers and readers festival had invited me to speak at their event, and offered to put us up overnight in an Inn called The Benmiller. We drove through rolling hills, down huge valleys, taking a circuitous route recommended by Google maps that must have been recommended for the views. Yellow cornfields, stands of trees with changing leaves, wending rivers. (Is that the right word? I want it to be.)
We arrived in time for dinner. When we clinked glasses, I said, in tones utterly heartfelt: “Here’s to the perks of being a writer!” We haven’t been away overnight, just the two of us together, since mumble mumble mumble. A really long time. Yeah. I was pregnant with our now-nine-year-old on our last overnight getaway. So this was a real treat. It was a treat I wasn’t sure we’d manage to pull off, given our busyness (Kevin drove back early the next morning to soccer tryouts, while I went to Blythe on my own for the presentation.) Accept all treats! That is going to be an addendum to my motto: I don’t procrastinate. Actually, those fit together well. It’s a reminder that it’s just as important not to procrastinate when it comes to the good, pleasurable, sweet things that life has to offer. My naturally ascetic personality needs to be reminded.
So, thank you to the organizers of the Alice Munro festival, in beautiful Huron County. (Mark your calendars for next year’s festival.) And thank you to my mom for staying overnight with the kids.
I haven’t been reading reviews of Girl Runner closely, mostly because I’m a wimp. No, mostly because the book feels too newborn and my feelings about it too raw to read anything that in any way could be taken as critique. I avoid Goodreads, for example (although I encourage you to go there and enter: they’re drawing for a giveaway of Girl Runner tomorrow). My publicist is sending notification of reviews to Kevin, who summarizes them for me. The reviews he’s told me about have been good, even great, but I still know that, early on, even the smallest critique feels like a stabbing, so I steer clear. (And I have to add that as time goes by, I will be able and willing to engage with a variety of opinions in a reasoned and thoughtful way; it doesn’t hurt me to read reviews of any kind of The Juliet Stories now, because I know what I love about it, and trust its value and worth. I also fully accept and understand that readers have very different opinions, takes, likes and dislikes—and I also accept and understand that I’m not ready to confront those quite yet, with Girl Runner.) That was a long lead-in. The point being, Kevin insisted I read in full, for myself, the review that came out in this weekend’s National Post. So I did. It left me breathless. The reviewer read the book just exactly like I hoped it would be read. Click here for the link. (They used the running photo again.)
Perhaps what I appreciated most about the review is that it was written by someone who doesn’t love running; yet she got it.
“I don’t understand Aganetha Smart’s relationship to running in particular, but I do connect with her deep love, her profound physicality. And her desire to pursue the thing she is meant to do above all other things, in the face of resistance that borders on impossibility. This is where I connected with her: there is no better way to raise a demon in her brain than to tell her a thing cannot be done. There is no wrench in the gears, no threat or heartbreak that succeeds in turning her away from the thing she loves, nor can it be taken from her.”
Goosebumps, I tell you.
This morning, I received notice of another review, on the 4Mothers blog, which Kevin also insisted I read. Click here for the link. Again, the reviewer connected with Aganetha’s competitive spirit:
“What I most loved about the book is the description of Aganetha’s ambition. I don’t think there are enough stories about female ambition. Snyder describes ambition not as something hard or calculating, but as if it is something organic, born and not made by the goal-setting cheers of the chorus of life coaches that seem so loud in the 21st century.”
I want to pour us all a cup of coffee and sit down for a long chat on this subject.
So, thank you reviewers for your generous reviews.
(And thank you to all reviewers, even if I haven’t had the courage to read you all the way through, yet. I will, I promise! When the newborn gets to the toddler stage and starts climbing the stairs by herself in 10 seconds flat, I’ll teach her how to come back down safely, and then we’ll both be ready to engage with a range of opinions, takes, likes and dislikes.)
Busy. I don’t have a more entertaining descriptive for my weekend. Saturday, noon, I read at Word on the Street in Kitchener, and Sunday at Word on the Street in Toronto, but Saturday afternoon the whole family found time to get outside and enjoy the heat.
I needed a long training run, and had accidentally, blissfully, slept in on Saturday morning. Slept in, read newspaper, drank coffee, ergo did not run. Serious bliss, followed by speeding off to my reading, tromping through downtown Kitchener in my high-heeled clogs, staying to hear my friend Tas’s presentation, all lovely, but somewhat dehydrating, in retrospect, and lunch became a forgotten meal.
Tasneem Jamal, reading at Word on the Street, Kitchener, from Where The Air Is Sweet
Home again, sunny and warm, we set off for Rim park, where I ran along the Grand river and the kids and Kevin practiced soccer drills, ’cause that’s what we do for fun.
Here’s where the dehydration comes into play. It was going to be an easy 15km run. Should’ve been easy, anyway. I started off feeling fab, a little too fab. Well-caffeinated, perhaps. Perhaps shamed by the marathon champion I’d interviewed on Thursday who, now in her early 50s, still runs at a 7-minute/mile pace. I should be doing that! I told myself (not actually managing to do that, quite, because people, do you know how fast that is?!). But there I was, nonetheless striving for greatness, passing all the teens on roller-blades, feeling swift and mighty and mighty fab. I knocked back the first 5km as if I were running a 5km race.
And then I died. You should not die at 5km when pacing yourself for 15. The rest of the run was a slog, which gradually became a torturous slog, and finally a suffering-from-weird-physical-symptoms-slog: terrible chills, in the heat. Not a good sign. Dragged myself back to the soccer field, a mere 12.5km accomplished.
But you’d never know from these photos I took, back at the soccer field.
We had so much fun. It took hours to recover my equilibrium (I stayed chilled for ages), but we mowed down hamburgers and poutine, and went to bed early, and all was well for Word on the Street in Toronto the next day.
Travelled by train. With my friend Tas, whose new book is out this year too — it’s called Where The Air Is Sweet, and you must read it or make it your book club’s pick.
Toronto, viewed from a window at Hart House
I was reminded that it’s always better to travel with a friend. With a friend along, and friends to meet up with, you travel in a frame of mind that welcomes all kinship, and is open to new connection. You travel more securely, perhaps. All things said and done, Sunday was another fun day, sunny and windy and fine. I deliberately aimed to eat and drink at regular intervals, though I do slightly regret the choice of a cup o’ soup on the train ride home.
Hey, am I ever glad to get to do what I do.
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’ve been thinking that I need a better answer to the question: How do you fit everything in? I usually laugh and say, I have no freaking idea, or something to that effect. But that’s not quite true. That’s the lazy answer. Because of course I have some idea. I’m doing it, after all. It isn’t just magically happening, it does take thought, care, effort.
Here’s the thing: the real answer is awfully long and detailed, hardly useful in interview situations, when the pithiest answer is best. But this is my blog, and we don’t care about pithy so much here, at least not all the time. So here, I present to you the non-pithy, heavily detailed, low-down from one woman’s organized life. (Note: I’m not suggesting you adopt these measures yourself; I recognize that many would not wish to lead such a strictly organized life. Please take this as descriptive rather than prescriptive.)
1. First of all, as you already know, I don’t procrastinate. Think of it, do it, done. If it can’t be done, make a note in a calendar so that it will be done. This unclutters my brain a great deal.
2. Keeping detailed notes in an online calendar also unclutters my brain, and prevents me from dropping too many balls in one day.
3. If I drop a few balls, I forgive myself. I think that’s key.
4. I lower my standards and relinquish control. The house isn’t very clean. The sheets aren’t regularly changed. The laundry is washed and dried, but may pile up for days unfolded in baskets in the basement. The meals aren’t planned. The kids aren’t terribly well-groomed. The garden is unkempt. And it’s okay. Because the domestic front isn’t exclusively my responsibility anyway — there are six of us in this house. As soon as I recognized this (and it wasn’t easy), I stopped critiquing others’ contributions. I would observe that an absence of critique makes it easier for others to take responsibility and contribute.
5. I’ve gotten good at assessing my own patterns of behaviour. For example, it’s no good to schedule exercise at lunchtime, which other people seem perfectly capable of doing; that will never happen for me. At lunchtime I will be working so intently on something else that I will forget to eat lunch, let alone remember or choose to exercise. So why fight the pattern? Instead, I schedule exercise early, or at times when I won’t be doing anything else, and will be outside somewhere (i.e. kids’ soccer practice).
6. Yeah, I schedule exercise. I schedule friend-time. I schedule writing time. I schedule everything. Some of it is actually jotted on the calendar, and some is just me, in my own head, blocking out time, observing the flow of the day, grabbing the moment and designating it: writing time. Or: interview time. Or: course prep time.
7. If the schedule isn’t working, I reassess on a deep level, or, often, I just go with the immediate flow and change course in the moment. The schedule is there because it works. If it doesn’t work, the problem is the schedule, not me or my family or us. I ditch what’s not working.
8. I don’t let the work that requires deep thought and focus overlap with all the rest of the work that requires deep thought. If I’m writing an essay, I want to be writing an essay and that is all. I try to apply this same principle to all activities. If I’m reading to my kids before bed, I want to be reading to my kids before bed and that is all. If I’m out for coffee with a friend, I want to be out for coffee with a friend and that is all. Heck, if I’m driving across town on errands, I want to turn on the radio and listen or stare out the window and daydream and that is all. You get the pattern.
9. I try to finish what I’ve started, or finish what I’ve decided needs finishing during this block of time. Big projects will not be finished in one go, or even in ten or twenty. But they can be finished in many small chunks of concentrated time. My dad used to have a sign on his office door that read: “If I do just a little bit every day, eventually I can let the task completely overwhelm me.” I remembered that recently, and had to laugh. Because that pretty much sums up my strategy. I do a little bit of many things every day. Thankfully, I don’t feel overwhelmed. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel interested, engaged, challenged, and fruitful.
10. Finally, I don’t try to do it all.
I realize it may look like I do. But I don’t. Instead, I try to make what I do count. I’m actually strategically and instinctively an opportunist (not in a bad way, I hope; I mean, I look to recognize and enjoy opportunities that exist, rather than demand the existence of ideal/idealized opportunities).
Sometimes opportunity is about efficiently gleaning multiple benefits from one task. For example, my teaching gig is a) a job, b) interesting and intellectually challenging, c) a chance to free-write during in-class exercises, d) helpful (I hope, for my students’ sakes!), and e) excellent training in public speaking.
Other times, opportunity is about embracing what’s immediately important. For example, this fall is about promoting Girl Runner. It is not about writing a new novel. If I try to make it about writing a new novel, I won’t enjoy going out into the world to share Girl Runner. And that would be a real shame. It would be a shame for two reasons. One, because there’s no way I can write a new novel amidst all this distraction, so I would be unhappily beating my head against an invisible wall. Two, if I were wishing to do something else, I would fail to appreciate what’s happening now.
Life’s short. I have right now. If I’m managing to wreck right now with my own expectations and worries, well, I’m wasting all I’ve got. I believe that.
Before, above, with my magnificent party planning crew.
And after, below, as the evening begins to swing.
I did not take photos during the party. These are by AppleApple. It was such an evening, a moment out of time, and all I can say is thank you to everyone who made it happen. Kevin told me I was laughing in my sleep last night.
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.
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