I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
A marvellous way to escape from the stasis and repetition of the everyday is by reading books. I’ve been reading more books these days than I have for a very long time, reading not merely for professional purposes, but as a fan.
And I just want to say: Read, friends, read!
Read a book! You won’t regret it! Sink in, let your brain get accustomed to taking the long, slow, scenic route instead of scrolling yourself down an endless wall of text. This might sound like self-serving advice, but really, I feel born-again.
Read a book!
It’s an immersion in a way that other forms of “entertainment” and learning are not, because it also involves engagement, as your mind works to build worlds and make connections. There are ideas and images forming inside your brain—new to you, exciting, challenging, alarming, frustrating, fresh and unknown—as you follow the line of words across the page. These brand-new images are transferred into the landscape of experiences, memories, and images that already belong to you. Connections between these worlds pop and crackle and spark something that has the potential to feel revelatory and transformative (at best), or at least interesting, different from your usual point of view.
Inside your mind, as you read a book, you’re actively creating something that is both collaborative and personal. You’re reading something written in a different time that is speaking to where you are right now (or attempting to). I think this is why it can feel like you know an author really well—because you’ve actually made something together when you read their book, even when you’re collaborating across cultures, languages, places, and times.
This past weekend, in related news, we camped at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, and went to the beach. And we read books. I even stayed up late one night to finish a conventional but highly entertaining murder mystery, borrowed from my brother (Ann Cleeves, The Long Call). I’d finished the book I’d brought camping (Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day), a book with which I had an ongoing argument, as it featured wealthy white British characters, several of whom were artists; at times, I strongly disliked everything about the book, but then bits seemed to capture something important about creating art, especially as a woman, and how valuable it is to have a champion, especially a patron with money and influence, but also how dangerous. In the end, it was the engagement with ideas, the argument with the book itself, that kept me transported and hooked.
Books transport me in so many different ways. Reading Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You brought me into characters who broke my heart, and with whom I craved even more time, and afterward I wanted to talk about these people like they were real; reading Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was both accusation and encouragement to reflect on my own transactional relationships, even while it pulled me along with a propulsive plot; reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed stirred up a mixture of emotions, including the desire to protect this seemingly vulnerable writer from her own blind spots, and respect for occasions of raw insight.
I’ve just started Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and already I feel like the top of my head has been lifted to make room for more seeing, more questions, more ways to jab at and unpeel my identity, my ways and means of performing myself.
Writing is not a glamorous job. Progress is made at a glacial pace, if what you’re doing can be even be seen as progress; it might be more rightly called meandering, looping, wondering, wandering. You can’t see what you’re making. You can’t know how it will be received, if it ever gets loose, let alone completed. You don’t know what arguments a stranger might have with what you’ve conjured on the page.
It often doesn’t feel like important or valuable work; certainly it doesn’t feel very useful a lot of the time. But when I read books, I know exactly why I write, and why I’ve chosen this wondering, wandering path. When I read, I feel belonging and expansion, both, at once. When I write, I feel like a giddy participant in a long, ongoing conversation about being alive, being a part of it all, in my own time and place and body, right now.
Right now, Canadian publishing is suffering. (Read this, if you want to know more about the nitty-gritty business of the industry.) But listen up, friends! If you’re lucky, you still have an independent bookstore operating despite the pandemic, and they’re the ones (according to the cited article) who have the potential to keep this fragile/tough cultural industry alive. All the books mentioned above (and many more!) were purchased at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo. Order online, pick up in the alley behind the store; or they deliver locally. Do a bit of searching. Find what’s available near you. There are many independent options other than Amazon, and these options are run by people who love books, too. They love reading. They believe in the collaboration between words on the page and individual minds. They want to challenge your horizons, send you on adventures, keep you up late at night. Amazon’s algorithm just wants to sell you more of the same.
Those are my thoughts for today. More ideas, coming soon.
What felt good this month? Honestly, it’s been a challenging month, with a lot of push-pull emotions. But this question is reminding me of all that’s been good, too. It felt good to re-enter the world, occasionally. I sourced several comfortable masks to carry in my purse. Started physio, the result of which is that I’ve been able to go for some early morning runs (personal moments of bliss; I hi-fived a tree branch this morning!). On Tuesday afternoons, I’ve been biking to pick up Fertile Farm’s CSA offerings, just like I did in the before-times. (We’re getting two different CSA boxes this summer, Tuesdays and Saturdays, so our Monday supper challenge is to finish all the greens in the house before their impending replenishment!) Strawberries and asparagus are in season: eating lots. My peonies bloomed, and I cut some of the blossoms and dried them, hoping their scent will last. We celebrated Father’s Day with homemade carrot cake, shared with my dad in the back yard. The back yard, by the way, is AMAZING. I’ve been joining Annabella for double yoga sessions on Saturday mornings. Hanging laundry on the line. I met with my girls’ soccer team on Zoom and we started a fitness challenge (which explains why I’m suffering through burpees every morning). The kids finished school, and yesterday morning, Calvin and I kicked off his summer holidays by drawing and writing together in our journals, like we’ve done in summer’s past, which is very good indeed. And, last but not least, Kevin’s been concocting fancy weekend drinks with herbs from his garden.
What did you struggle with? My emotions. I’ve felt restless, sometimes bored, distracted by anxieties. Mental fatigue. Making case-by-case decisions about our family’s activities as invitations to socialize begin again: what’s low-risk, what’s doable, what are the compromises or modifications that make normalcy possible? I almost had a panic attack on a walk with a friend last week, when we ventured to a park that felt too crowded with unmasked strangers. I suspect my absorption of US news is affecting my perceptions of safety here in Southern Ontario, where the numbers of new infections are relatively low. Also recognizing that the sameness of my days is causing a crash in creativity. As the months grind onward, I crave variety, challenge, adventure, new sights and sounds. There’s not much growth in the comfort zone.
Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? More restless, less focused, but also more optimistic about our collective ability to adapt to post-pandemic life. Work-wise, I finished writing a complete first draft of the 16th century novel. It requires major revision, perhaps even rethinking, so I’ve set it aside to steep for awhile. In its absence, I haven’t landed solidly on a writing project as absorbing. However, I do have big news: this month I signed a contract with a major Canadian publishing house to publish my next novel (tentatively titled Francie’s Got a Gun; not set in the 16th century). It’s been a long time coming, and I’m slipping the news in here rather quietly; look for a more formal announcement once the manuscript is finalized (due date for revisions: January 31, 2021). Maybe by the time the book comes out (2022), we’ll be free to throw a big old-fashioned launch party, which is really the reason I wanted to publish a new book and I’m not even making that up. God, I love a good launch party. I’m going to spend the next 2 years planning it. All of that said, and as this rambling paragraph attests, I’m casting around right now looking for something to occupy my energies, as I wait for notes from my new editor, dip into other writing projects, and hang out with my children.
How did you take care of yourself? This month, I looked after my physical health. I went to physio on the advice of my chiro. I did a tea cleanse for the first two weeks of June. Also: almost-daily cardio, dry brushing, stretching, yoga, reading for pleasure, weekly sibs check-ins, salads, homemade yogurt, journaling, evening walks with Kevin and Rose, planning some fun events for our summer holidays, meeting friends outdoors and for walks.
What would you most like to remember? What it feels like to walk uptown again, after several months’ absence: how strange the air feels, how empty the streets, how heightened my awareness of surroundings. Eating ice cream with a friend on one of my first outings post-lockdown. How my brain has struggled to feel safe doing activities that were once so ordinary they required no thought. Also: Black Lives Matter, and the hope for change.
What do you need to let go of? I need to let go of my desire to control, which is a desire to protect and a compulsion to try to prevent bad things from happening. I’ve noticed particularly in interactions with my children that I’m always on patrol, attempting to prevent disaster, messes, missteps, no matter how insignificant (“don’t leave that jar of pickles on the edge of the counter”; “did you put on sunscreen?”; be careful, watch out, don’t forget, did you remember to, have you thought about …). My watchfulness is not helping anyone. My hyper-vigilance renders me needlessly anxious, and also feeling pointlessly guilty and responsible for anything bad that happens that I haven’t prevented; but it’s also harming my kids, who deserve my trust, and who can really only learn from experience. Painful as that is to recognize. I’d like to stop putting up caution signs and issuing warnings, and just … let go … let go … and I mean this on all fronts, in both my professional and my personal life, I want to walk a path that honours and accepts all I can’t know, all I do not control. God, it’s hard. But stuck together in close quarters, lo these many months, I’ve seen the harm of it more clearly, and I’ll keep trying to open my hands, unclench my jaw, and let go.
Our days have found their routines. I start with exercise: a good sweat puts me in a good mood. If I’m on the spin bike, I also get to watch a favourite show on Netflix. Right now, that’s Murdoch Mysteries, another Canadian television gem that I’ve taken too long to discover (like Schitt’s Creek). I like my entertainment understated.
Next, I might mix up a sourdough loaf, or pop one in the oven (if I mixed it up last night; very occasionally, what I pop in the oven is scones … mmm). Shower. Breakfast: eggs on toast, or porridge with seeds and yogurt. Newspaper, coffee. I take my time. Then I head to my office.
Meanwhile, the kids appear, and three of them, plus Kevin, lace up their running shoes and head out the door, no matter the weather, for the 10:30 Running Club. The same daughter who organized Fake Prom 2020 has somehow gotten her brothers and dad running daily. This is nothing short of a miracle. The kid is a motivational genius. Best of all, the 10:30 Running Club has a fan! Apparently, someone on the route noticed their regularly daily efforts, and began appearing on his porch to cheer them on as they passed. Last week, he made them a motivational poster. I mean, how awesome is that?!
I think this is a good time for good stories.
That said, the novel I’m working on is pretty dark. I hope it’s pretty and dark, or maybe romantic and dark, or magical and dark.
It’s where I spend most of the hours between 10AM and 5PM, week days. And it does feel like it’s a place, this novel, because I time travel to get there. It’s set in the 16th century and it’s pure escape for me to drop down into that imaginary place and write about whatever I find there.
Around 5PM, I exit the office and begin to cast about for supper ideas. I listen to a podcast or the radio, wash up the dishes that have accumulated throughout the day, and bake the loaf of sourdough (if I haven’t already). And cook a meal. It’s usually ready around 6:30/7PM. I haven’t mentioned the laundry and lunch breaks I’ll take at some point during my writing day (laundry time is when I watch Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert to catch up on my satirical news fix; I’ll often pop upstairs to check in on the youngest’s online schooling, but mostly I don’t do much parenting during these writing hours).
Supper is family time. We catch up. After supper, the kids do the cleanup. Kevin and I walk the dog. Around 8PM, I do yoga. And then watch something on Netflix with Kevin, or not. Depends on the day. Wednesdays is sibs night, when we meet via Zoom and consume a few beers.
Before bed, I feed my sourdough starter (“Doughy”), maybe mix up a loaf.
And that’s a day.
This morning, I received another good story in my inbox: one of The X Page writers, Swati, emailed to share her experience of publishing “Crayons,” her story about a favourite teacher that always makes me LOL when I read it. (Link here; enjoy!) A friend who read Swati’s story suggested that she look up the teacher and share it with her. And the teacher replied! Here are a few of the teacher’s words: “You have no idea how much you have lifted my spirits. I have been struggling lately, especially with this virtual teaching, not seeing my students and not knowing if I’m even making a difference. You have reminded me why I still teach and why I love it so much! Thank you!”
Actually, you have no idea how much this message lifted my spirits, too.
Thank you to Swati and her teacher and my 10:30 Running Club’s number one fan. Thank you for seeing, for cheering, for noticing, for your attention to someone else’s efforts. You’ve reminded me that the gift of appreciation is always in us to give, and immeasurably wonderful to receive.
Starting today, new stories from the 2020 X Page Workshop are being published daily by The New Quarterly. Below, is our theatre director’s introduction to the online series.
Today’s story, which would have been the opening performance onstage, is called “Pant Rant.” I remember hearing the first draft of “Pant Rant” being read during a small-group workshop and being totally blown away; afterward, we all sat in silence, rocked by the rhythm and depth of the raw words. “Pant Rant” is a gritty, rich and poetical examination of mental toughness in defiance of persistent indignities endured for the sake of survival. At least, that’s how I read it. I wish you could hear Xiao tell her story in her own voice; instead, it’s her gift to us on the page. I find this story especially resonant as I think about the people who are working in dangerous conditions, physically and emotionally, in places like meat-packing plants and long-term care homes, performing difficult tasks that the rest of us prefer not to think much about.
I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to let others be. How often when I express anger or frustration it’s about a situation over which I have no control. And my anger and frustration is not about the situation, exactly, but about my lack of control.
Knowing that, recognizing it, makes it easier to let go.
You are not responsible for fixing everything.
Saying these words to myself brings a feeling of great calm. I allow myself to let go of even those I love most, of expectations, of desire, of the need to protect, to keep safe, to confirm, to hold, to beg for proof of. I let it be. Whatever it is. I don’t necessarily want to let it be, but I let it be anyway.
In this way, I am able to look directly at what is before me and see it clearly. We find ourselves, often, every day at least, in situations over which we have no control. This is challenging to accept. Challenging to understand. What makes it even more challenging, maybe, is that we live in a culture that prizes control, that sells us a version of reality in which whoever wants it most wins, that tells us that we can improve exponentially if we try and that if we don’t, we aren’t trying hard enough. That a winner wins and a loser loses and those are the only two options. That we just have to set our minds to it. Decide to do it. You can do anything, you just need to work harder, yell louder, demand more, bend the rules if you must, take what you deserve!
No, and no, and no.
Clarity of vision recognizes all that is not ours to claim, to own, to change, to bully into being. And that’s pretty much everything. Anything I bring forth is a gift. It belongs to grace, not to me.
The way that I see it is this: with acceptance comes clarity. When I accept that I inhabit this earthly body and mind for a fraction of time, when I understand how small I am, how easy, then, it is to accept and love not only myself, my tiny precious singular brief flawed radiant self, but also to love and accept all that swims beyond me, beyond my control.
To be aware that I am, in concert and with all others who are, too, who will be, and who were.
Does this mean I will just lie back and gaze at the stars and let life wash over me? Actually, that sounds lovely. Maybe I’ll achieve that level of inner calm and peace someday. Right now, it means that I’m still wrestling with the urge to strive for better and more. But also that I’m finding it ever and ever easier to embrace and celebrate the joy of process. Of being. Of simply being, here, now.
If my calling is to sit with someone I love more than life itself and simply be, if that’s what I’m called to do, that is the highest calling I can imagine.
I also love making things. I love expressing what I’m discovering by making things.
When I write stories, I sit with my characters. I listen to what they’re telling me, I record what I discover. It’s the most joyful work. I feel nothing but wonder that I get to do this work, because it’s wonder I feel as I do it.
I’ve received good news in the past week, news that offers support and external encouragement to keep doing this work. This news fills me with wonder. I cherish it, thank it and welcome it, even while I know that it isn’t of me, it isn’t me. In the presence or absence of news, I continue to do as I’m called to do. I sit with those I love more than life itself and simply be. Thank you, thank you, benevolence and grace.
The best place to wonder, connect, observe, record, interpret, embrace, breathe, share, contemplate, create, and be. Come on in. Here, find everything that occupies and distracts this Canadian fiction writer. Your comments are welcome.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm mother of four, writer of fiction and non-, dreamer, contemplative, mid-life runner, coach, forever curious. I'm interested in the intersection between art and spirituality. What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty? What if everyone could make art?