Opened the fridge this morning, looking for an egg, and suffered a flicker of regret at turning down a new career path (ie. midwifery; perhaps the egg twigged it). I remember blogging last winter about wanting to escape out from under the expectation that my writing would need to earn a living (even a modest living) — a sweet dream of writing for pleasure, while pursuing work that would be very different indeed. I blogged about the writer’s cycle of survival, which involves filling out many application forms, a cycle that feels like one is perpetually asking for help. How exhausted I felt by the cycle. How I hated asking for help.
And yet here I am, several months on, willingly filling out more application forms.
It doesn’t feel like I’m asking for help, just now. It feels more like an elaborate gamble, which is how my writing life feels, in truth. My maternal grandfather was a gambler. He loved the horses. Like most gamblers, he probably lost more than he won, but he talked a big game. I think of myself as essentially cautious — hey, we’ve lived in the same house for a decade and I never try anything new with my hair — but that may be partly illusion.
When I consider the choices I’ve made in my life, the risks I can stomach, the hope I can generate against slim odds, the faith in the race, I’m not so far removed from my gramps. When it comes right down to it, I’m pretty much a gambler at heart. Or maybe it’s at gut rather than heart, the gut being the location of much of the gambler’s decision-making. It feels right, or it doesn’t. That’s as clear as it gets for me.
I have the gambler’s ability to look forward rather than back. Or elsewhere, rather than here. I separate myself into possibilities, hiving off rejection, stepping free from what isn’t to be with an energy that may flag but oddly doesn’t seem to deplete. I just finished reading Aleksander Hemon’s collection of essays “The Book of My Lives,” and he writes in his final essay something that rings true to my instincts, to what I know about why I write, too: “In my books, fictional characters allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, has been nearly everything). I’d found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my biography. I’d needed narrative space to extend myself into; I’d needed more lives. I’d cooked up those avatars in the soup of my ever-changing self, but they were not me — they did what I wouldn’t or couldn’t.”
My agent tells me, gently, that very few fiction writers survive on their writing alone; most have other jobs. I know this is true. I did very much want to develop a different and separate career, especially one with security, but the truth of it is that my writing hours are essentially full-time as it is, and I am also in the thick of it with my four kids, and there isn’t time or space or energy to add a third parallel life into the mix without sacrificing one or both of the other two occupations.
So I’m back to gambling.
But more precisely, I’m back to the imagination. This is a gamble both literal and figurative. I gamble every time I send a project out to be assessed, in hopes it will find favour and win support, and that process I could take or leave, quite honestly, except that I can’t and I won’t because it’s in support of the larger and more profound gamble to which I see I’m truly bound, and that is the wild, wonderful, risky, ever-creative, potentially illuminating, grace-filled gamble of making something from scratch, of writing more lives than I could ever live. How could I give it up? What wouldn’t I do to keep this gamble going?
It’s unsteady ground, and it has its practical limitations, as Hemon goes on to express heart-rendingly in the same essay, but it’s familiar. It’s known. I know here. I am suddenly reminded that I used to listen rather obsessively to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” the summer that I was ten, and we were living with my aunt and uncle in Tennessee, before moving to Canada. “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.”
No counting shall I do.
I walked CJ to the school bus this morning, and noticed our paired footprints on the way home. And that’s my teeny-tiny attempt at positivity regarding this January-in-April weather we’ve been “enjoying.” I run outdoors all winter long, and this morning’s run was one of the coldest all year, thanks to a bitter wind and sharp flecks of snow. I’ve also got a hole in my running tights, and I’d really like to retire them for the season. Yes, that’s a first-world-white-woman problem, right there.
What was I going to blog about? I had ideas.
A blog is a nice place to gather one’s thoughts, I find. Maybe that’s why I don’t really want to stop. There’s a scrapbook mentality to this blog: every day is different, but every day is also focused and structured by the necessity of being and expressing where I’m at right now.
I read a piece in Maclean’s this morning about meditation, about using our minds to come to terms with ourselves. That is totally not the quote. I’ll go get the magazine. Here it is: Meditation is “a dignified attempt to come to grips with being human with the resources you have right there. Not depending on some guru, or some drug, or some psychotherapy. Just a very simple technique that, repeated again and again and again, will eventually change the way you relate to the world at the deepest level.” The person being quoted is Jeff Warren, a Toronto meditation teacher and journalist, who sounds like he could be guru-like, but who doesn’t like gurus. I, too, distrust the guru figure, even while acknowledging that I can learn much from mentors and teachers … I think it’s a fear of idolatry, but maybe it’s a fear of dependence, too, because I also dislike self-help books, or anyone claiming to be able to fix anyone else’s life. And yet I feel myself drawn to writing a self-help-like book — collecting and distilling all of the bits and pieces of discovery that keep me going and keep me digging — which seems super-hypocritical. I’m simultaneously pulled toward looking for ways to find and express a more meaningful life, and resistant to latching on to a single path or expression. As an individual, my path is singular, my voice is singular, there’s no way around that. Maybe that’s why I like fiction: it allows me to embody and express a wide variety of opinions and beliefs, none of which may be exactly my own.
Back to Maclean’s magazine (awkward segue), I’ve discovered a new (unpaid) talent: writing letters to the editor. I rattled off a critique of their deliberately inflammatory headline a few weeks back, in which a screaming toddler was labelled with the question: “Is she a brat or is she sick?” Ugh, I thought. Stop it with the name-calling! She’s neither, of course: she’s a normal toddler. That’s the gist of my letter and they printed it.
As I put in a load of laundry this morning, I thought, I often write from a position of response rather than call. I react to what exists with emotion and opinion. The non-fiction essays I’ve written have almost all been assigned rather than originated and pitched by me. This has been a stumbling block to my freelance writing career. When I write an essay on an assigned subject, I never know where I’m going to end up, but I know it’s going to be a fascinating exploration of unexpected territory. I know also that these thoughts and discoveries wouldn’t exist without someone else inviting me to make them exist. It burns a lot of energy to come up with an idea and spin it into existence, all on my own steam. This may be my downfall, as a writer, my Achilles’ heel, the personality flaw impossible to overcome.
But that’s okay.
Because my goal is to make writing my comfort zone, my place of meditation and peace, and not my bread and butter. I’d like to stop complaining about not making money as a writer. (I’m sure you’d appreciate that too.)
I’d like to free my writing from the burden of earning.
I have a feeling that particular complaint will never vanish, no matter how long I work at writing. The tension between creativity and a comfortable lifestyle is built right into the artistic enterprise. I, personally, can’t imagine how to change the system so that creative energies are compensated in a steady and reliable way. I’ve tried! I just can’t imagine it. And while I’m appreciative of the important role grants have played in supporting my work, I really hate asking for money. Just hate it. I want to earn my living, plain and simple.
I ran with a friend this morning. Therefore, I started my day feeling happy. Kevin says I should start every morning with exercise, and I agree, although I’m down to one early morning class due to cost and it’s a challenge to find free exercise that I feel safe doing, by myself, in the pre-dawn hours. I’ve been going to the nearby indoor track once a week, and I’ve got a yoga mat by the bed so I can start the morning with wake-up stretches. But the truth is that it’s so much easier to get up for exercise when a) I’m meeting someone or b) I’m signed up for something.
Find the fortitude, woman! (She says to herself.)
I am thinking about yesterday’s rant, and asking myself: what are the products/services that I, as a consumer, would have a hard time doing without. Because if I am honest with myself, I am a consumer, and lead a lifestyle that is by world-wide standards wasteful and decadent, even if I think (sometimes) that my family really does need the things we treat ourselves to. It’s hard to shake my fist at capitalism when I’m a willing participant.
These items make my list of really really really want ’em wants, for my family and for me:
* books, daily newspaper
* sports: team fees, shoes, clothes (thrifty or secondhand fine), exercise classes, swim lessons, swim suits, goggles, skates, helmets
* nice shampoo and conditioner
* eating out with my husband once a month
* eating out as a family once every two months
* our truck + gas; carshare fees
* vitamins and fish oil (expensive!)
* local food
* internet and cellphone
* our house and the cost of maintenance
* dogs and cost of keeping them
* prescription medication and dentist visits (we are both self-employed and pay out of pocket)
* piano lessons
* nursery school fees (until full-day kindergarten starts this fall, please dear God, if Tim Hudak isn’t elected in the meantime)
Do you have a list, too?
I woke up this morning remembering how last winter I couldn’t run for a whole month due to a hip injury. I remembered that not being able to run inspired me to find alternate ways to stay fit, including swinging kettlebells. I’m still swinging those bells once a week, for which my core is truly thankful. Look how straight I’m sitting at this desk! If I had been able to keep running, I never would have discovered this. Point being: what may look like a lost opportunity might actually be a gentle nudge in a direction yet untested. Point also being: in the past week, I learned that I failed to earn both grants applied for last fall; having earned both in the past, I know they’re within reach and I’m questioning why I applied proposing a secondary project that has sat idle since then, but, past results and hindsight aside, the fact remains that grants as a way of supporting my writing/list above are off the table for this fiscal year.
To quote a writer friend on Facebook: “The part of being a writer that requires the most creativity is figuring out how to pay the bills.”
Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time helping two little guys launch a squeaking balloon down the staircase, with the happy effect that it squealed overhead and repeatedly smacked its little balloon head against the wall or ceiling before deflating and twisting earthward.
It would be pleasant to turn this into a metaphor, but I’m struggling.
There, no metaphor needed. I’m struggling. That’s it, plain and simple. I hesitate to spit it into word form, especially on a public forum, but there it is. A blog is a troublesome creation: it’s very much in the moment, and therefore can magnify the smallest ups and downs in a person’s life, and this here is a down. Right now I’m happy when I’m running, and that’s about it. But get that right now really is right now.
Suffice it to say that I’m tired after a second night up with a sick child. I’m irritable after another day home with my children, who are on holiday, but who can’t leave the house or have play dates due to the aforementioned sickness. It occurred to me today that the only thing a person can really accomplish while home with four children is cooking and housework — plus the vacuuming covered the noise of the periodic tantrums and steady stream of complaints. So the house is pretty clean. Which is something. But it’s not enough.
I would like to reflect on my impatient response to International Women’s Day, a day I usually respond to with honour and interest, solemnity, even pride. But this year, on this International Women’s day, all that welled in me was intense frustration. And I think my response is the key to unlocking exactly where I’m at right now, and why I’m struggling.
My expectations do not seem to be in line with reality.
I expect that girls and women will be treated as individuals, with the same opportunities as boys and men to pursue lives that are interesting and fulfilling. Every time I read another story about a horror perpetrated on a woman — because she’s a woman — my response is THIS CANNOT BE! Every time I read another statistic coldly demonstrating women’s under-representation in, well, you-name-it, most anything that has to do with power or cultural critique or leadership my response is HOW CAN THIS STILL BE? Every time I read some trumped up story on “The Mommy Wars,” or “Stay-at-Home Mothers v. Working Mothers,” or even hear myself referred to as “a full-time mother,” (what, exactly, is a part-time mother?), I want to shrug it off as mere noise, but instead I feel something akin to disbelief: WHY?
A few more WHYs.
WHY would any family rationally choose to have more than one or two children, understanding that childcare, particularly during the early years, will either cost one parent his or her career, or two working parents the better part of a decent salary? Let’s ask the politicians who a) have no interest in funding childcare and b) want Canadian families to produce more children FOR THE ECONOMY. (Surprise! They tend to be the same ones.)
WHY is Canada’s major news magazine running a photo, this week, of a woman shaving her face under the headline “Man Up,” suggesting that women should be more like men if they want to succeed in the workplace? WHY are we always being told to be someone we’re not? Which reminds me: WHY is success in the workplace our main measure of success? Further to that, WHY are good and moral choices so often couched in economic terms, as if that’s the only language that matters, the only real currency? I heard a news report, happened to be on International Women’s Day, in which an economist (who was a woman) explained that educating girls and women is a sure-fire way to increase the economic well-being of communities and nations. So let’s do it, people. Let’s do it FOR THE ECONOMY.
I have a theory about anxiety dreams: I think they don’t count for restful sleep. I woke this morning feeling utterly exhausted by the dreams I’d just been through. I’d lost my phone. I’d appeared late for an event at a festival due to taking a shortcut and sliding down a steep hill of mud and having to climb back up again. I realized we’d scheduled that over-achieving daughter of ours to take ballet at the same time that she had soccer and swimming. Worst of all I went on an angry rant at a stranger, which proved completely unjustified: I accused him of stealing some cards from me, and it turned out that he’d found the cards and kindly mailed them on my behalf.
Dream rage is very disturbing. Does anyone else do that? Rant and rave in their dreams? Maybe I’m repressing something.
In any case, I awoke with residual dream-emotions of guilt, worry, stress, and whatever one wrestles with while trying to scrabble up a steep muddy incline.
A hurricane is coming, apparently, or at least its outer skirts are expected to brush our part of the world. On the bright side, soccer tryouts are cancelled tonight, so we can look forward to a leisurely family supper. I’m making fish and potatoes. A grainy mustard sauce for the fish, and potatoes fried in leftover bacon fat with onions. Yum.
I realize that this blog has recently come to be dominated by the writer part of me. And the writer part of me is admittedly anxious. I don’t feel that close to the industry, here in the wilds of Waterloo, but there is much in the news about publishing to be anxious about. But how anxious to be? In the print media, newspapers are putting up paywalls online in an effort to earn back dollars lost in advertising revenue, which has collapsed. A midsized independent Canadian publisher declared bankruptcy last week. And two huge multinationals, Random House and Penguin, just announced a merger agreement this morning. I’ve been reading the news, and the commentary, and some excellent blogs on the subjects, but I can’t wrap my head around what it means. Are people willing to pay for well-written words? Is traditional book publishing dying out? Does it mean no one can make money publishing books, or print? Does it mean we’ll all be turning virtual pages very soon? Or writing “books” in new formats: serially, like blogs, or quippily, like tweets? I don’t even know why I’m speculating on the subject because I have no good ideas or insights. None.
At our house, we still like books. The old-fashioned kind that carry evidence of their history around with them in physical clue-like ways.
At our house, we still get the daily newspaper delivered; I read it at breakfast and lunch and in the evening, usually while eating.
But then, once upon a time, not so long ago, I loved writing letters. I’ve converted happily to a mixture of email, texts, and social media, none of which I can store in my hope chest in shoeboxes up in the attic.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I wrote regularly in a journal. Now I write here, unless I’m having a day too dark for here.
I don’t seem to miss the letters or the journals, except abstractly. Maybe I won’t miss books. I almost can’t type that sentence, because I just can’t believe it could ever be true.
Every September we measure the kids on a wall in the basement. We started the annual ritual not long after moving into this house, which was nine years ago this summer. It’s entertaining to compare, say, AppleApple, who has always been my biggest child, from birth onwards, to Fooey, who has always been my smallest. We discovered this year that Fooey measures almost a year and a half behind AppleApple in height! AppleApple, meantime, would be taller than Albus, if they were exactly the same age. And so far, Albus and CJ measure identically at the same ages.
Trivia. The stuff of life.
This year we measured Kevin and me too. It was the kids’ idea. I’d rather not repeat it every year, because really, all we can hope for is that we haven’t shrunk: that’s our only direction at this stage. Amusingly (for me), I proved taller than expected, and Kevin proved shorter. We’re only separated by about 2.5 inches. So we gave everyone a low five: guess what kids, you’ve been gifted with short genes.
Reflecting on measuring changes, here’s another one. I’m realizing that there may not be quite as much blog-time this fall as I’ve been accustomed to. Please accept in advance my apologies for the absences that may occur.
So much I want to tell you about: work, play, exercise, new activites, a family meeting, canning, running, writing, suppers. So much I want to record and preserve.
But the truth is that I’m not keeping up. I’m not used to not keeping up. Professionally, I’m swamped through October, and on the domestic front, well, it’s back-to-school time, and you all know what that means. So I’m hoping to tread water. That’s all.
Actually, come to think of it, I’m hoping not to shrink …