Last week I blogged about fiction versus non-fiction, and a friend posted a link to an article titled “Based on a True Story. Or Not.” If you’ve got time to ponder the subject, go off now and read it. If you’re in a hurry, here’s my brisk summary:
The essay is about the use of autobiography in poetry. We, the reader, tend to assume that a personal-sounding poem is autobiographical. So what happens when we, the reader, discover that a personal-sounding poem is in fact fictional? Do we have a sense of being cheated out of something “real,” or of having been fooled or tricked by the poet? Why do we want so badly to know that the poet wrote out of experience rather than imagination? Why does it matter to us?
Because it does matter, at least to many of us.
I’ve visited quite a few book clubs for The Juliet Stories. There is one question asked every time, usually immediately, a variation of: “Is this story something that really happened to you?” How I answer the question probably depends on my mood, and I often feel rather weary as I try to explain my creative process. But even if I don’t welcome the question, exactly, I don’t disdain it. I’ve come to believe the question must tap into something fundamental within us, something held in common, as readers. That we come to a story looking for truth. We come looking for the connections between author and subject. We want to believe in the veracity of what’s being told. (Maybe we want to be part of the story or become closer to it, by being witnesses rather than “mere” readers.)
The closer a story appears to be to autobiography, the more jarring it is to be told: this is fiction. We’re not comfortable with something we suspect to be full of half-truths, which are also, of course, half-falsehoods. I find it very difficult to wrestle with these distinctions. I’d rather say, “None of this happened” than “Bits of this happened”; while the thought of saying “This all happened” makes my skin crawl. I’ve got no desire to be a memoirist, clearly.
But every story I’ve ever written has been inspired by a glimpse of something actual, whether it be a house I once lived in, or the memory of an emotion that washed over me in a specific situation, or an amulet from childhood, or by knowledge I’ve personally gained cooking or horseback riding or running. I get my ideas from life. But an idea isn’t a story, an emotion isn’t a story, a glimpse isn’t a story. To make a story, I imagine what might have been if life were different. I seek alternative explanations for those things I can’t explain. I go off the trail. I wonder. I make it up.
As a fiction writer, I’m not asking my readers to be witnesses, to paraphrase the conclusion of the essay cited above. I’m asking my readers to imagine.
Curious, though. What am I asking of readers here on the blog? This isn’t fiction, obviously. This is it. Here, perhaps, I’m asking you to be witnesses.
Yesterday at 9AM I wanted to write a post that listed in fine detail every damn thing I’d already accomplished since waking four hours previously; but I was too tired to do it, and instead went upstairs and fell into the oblivion of a nap. It will sound like bragging. Maybe it is. I don’t mean it to be. I myself am astonished and only want to record it because I doubt I’ll believe it years from now, the pace at which I’m currently pushing myself, wondering whether it’s too much, whether I’ll stumble, and badly. (Note: Kevin was working in Toronto yesterday, and usually shares half these duties.)
5:04 – Alarm. Brush teeth, dress.
5:11 – Daughter’s alarm. Help her get ready for swimming.
5:19 – See daughter off with carpooling friend.
5:33 – In darkness, leave house for a run on snowy roads.
6:29 – Home after 10.2km (slow; muscles never warmed up in the cold).
6:33 – Dash out with whining dogs for walk, chilled.
6:47 – Feed dogs. Shower. Dress. Scarf toast with PB.
7:00 – Wake eldest son to watch dogs and be on alert for rising children. Leave for pool. Listen to news on the radio, blast the heat.
7:15 – Pick up daughter and friend at pool. Feed them bananas. Chat.
7:25 – Drop off friend.
7:35 – Home. Feed myself and daughter poached eggs on toast.
7:55 – See friends waiting for elder son to walk to school, run out and tell them go; he’s sick. Call school to report his impending absence.
8:00 – Send daughter to bed.
8:03 – Wake small children. Dress smallest.
8:15 – Feed small children vanilla yogurt with cut-up pears. Empty dishwasher, begin filling again.
8:19 – Check lunch boxes, add desserts, make snack to put into smallest’s coat pocket for field trip, as per instructions on form sent home by teachers, lost, and then after much searching, found. Start load of laundry. Wash beans for supper.
8:29 – Get small children into outdoor clothes. Not quickly enough.
8:37 – Wake eldest daughter. Drive small children to meet friends for their walk to school (they usually walk there).
8:47 – Wake eldest daughter again. Pack her school bag.
9:01 – Drive eldest daughter to her school (she usually walks there, too).
9:10 – Check on sick eldest son, returned to bed. Make him a cup of tea.
9:20 – Crate dogs. Nap.
9:50 – Woken by whining dogs. Get up. Feel grumpy. Get on with it.
this is where I went this morning
this is why
Bus ride, hee-hawing donkey, straw bale maze, wagon ride, corn maze, pumpkin patch. I’ve been on field trips with all of the other kids — fire station, nature hike, a different pumpkin patch — but never with this last one; so he gets his due. This might mark the end of the line for me, the last of the field trips. Six hours a day of work-time (ie. school hours) are already too slender for my requirements. I’m going into my office on campus on Wednesday evenings for teaching prep. I’m out of the house on Thursday evenings too (for class), and may maintain the habit even if I’m not teaching this winter. I need the extra hours wherever I can find them. And everyone’s getting along just fine without me.
“If I’m going to be more of a house-husband, you might have to give up some control over the laundry,” Kevin told me, as he chauffered me to campus yesterday.
The laundry remains my only real area of total domestic domination; why am I holding on? I used to maintain exclusive management of the following: kitchen, dishes, lunches, meals, food gathering, bedding, bathrooms, vacuuming, and laundry. I let Kevin handle the basement, garbage, pets, and yard (such a classic gender split, I know). I’m down to just laundry, having acceded control over everything else. I can’t remember why I used to be so possessive of those spheres, so certain of my own superior expertise.
Where was I going with this post?
Oh, yes. Such a jam-packed evening yesterday. After being dropped on campus, I holed up in my office to work. Then we had class, cut short due to a reading planned months ago. I walked through Waterloo Park with several students brave enough to tag along, to the Clay and Glass Gallery, where a double-launch was already underway for the Wild Writers Festival (coming to Waterloo Nov. 8-10), and for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting, a new anthology of personal essays, to which I’m a contributor. I was the last to read, and had time to down a glass of white wine and fix my hair (sort of) before going on. It felt quite magical, actually. I’d slashed my essay to a reasonable reading length, and the words seemed to fall into a hushed and welcoming space.
I love reading. I want to say more about it, but everything I try to type sounds presumptuous and vain. I love the opportunity reading affords: to share a moment that has the potential to be profound. Yup, that sounds lofty. All I know is that when I’m reading, it feels exactly like what I’m meant to be doing. And that’s a good feeling.
Afterward, I went out for drinks with friends to celebrate, well, all of this.
Which is another reason I was not so extremely filled with happiness to find myself on a crowded school bus this morning.
More news, to end on: Girl Runner has found herself a German publisher! Yes, it’s true, we’ll be going out for schnitzel. And beer. The book will be published in translation, which is kind of mind-blowingly awesome, isn’t it? We were trying to figure out last night what the translation of the title might be: Madchen Lauferin, according to Google (sure to be spot on).
And, last but not least, here’s a link to a piece in today’s The Bookseller, on the UK deal.
I’m a bit distracted this week.
I’m up early, I’m exercising, I’m napping, I’m ferrying children to activities, I’m sitting with good intentions at my desk, I’m making lists and plans, but my attention is a wanderer. I’ve found myself dissolved in tears. I’ve found myself bizarrely flat with calm, and the next moment zapped with elevated emotion.
It was a year ago, tomorrow, that I got the news about Juliet being a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. Strange that this same season, a year later, should occasion another, altogether different heightened career moment. I note also that apparently it’s been a year since I last got a haircut. What with all the glamourous travel, I splurged. But I haven’t had a good excuse to get one since, and may have inherited a few parsimonious personality traits that will prove impossible to kick. The children enjoy mocking me for my regular (and joyful) 50% off purchases at the grocery store (“Really, Mom? Fifty-per-cent-off yogurt?” “What? It’s organic!” “When does it expire?” “Everyone knows expiry dates are inaccurate!”) Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’d like a haircut, but need to convince myself that there’s a good reason to get one.
This morning marked the start of what promises to be a new era in our lives. AppleApple has begun early morning swim practices, thrice weekly. I woke her at 5am on the dot. She was excited, ready to go when her ride arrived (thank goodness for carpooling). I set off through eerie fog on a brisk walk, punctuated every eight minutes by one blissful minute of running. I was alone in the neighbourhood except for the man on the bicycle who was scavenging bottles from people’s trash. He said good morning, and I felt ashamed for having been afraid, momentarily, of someone up so early, working so hard.
I managed an hour’s exercise. A shower. A breakfast of poached eggs on buttered toast. All before picking up my swimmer and her friend from the pool. AppleApple devoured two bananas on the (short) ride home. She had to leave for school, and running club, while I went for a nap. Oh boy, did I need that nap.
I’m worried about her. I hope she will learn to nap, or to go to bed early. This is a big challenge, and much as I love early rising, it works only when lost sleep gets replaced.
Other sports currently being practiced by my children: football (Albus, who’s up at 6:30 twice weekly for practice); karate (Albus); swimming (CJ: “We did dolphin jumps!”); gymnastics (Fooey). And we haven’t even started soccer.
So … distractions. Work. Edits. Revisions. Readings. Reading. Teaching. Ferrying. Truck needing repair (again!). Vertigo. Permission forms. Agendas. Signatures. Homework. Piano practice. Field trip volunteering (what was I thinking?). Local food (why am I irresistably drawn to ordering a half-bushel of eggplant for pickup on Friday? Along with a half-bushel of tomatoes? Talk me down, someone?).
Tonight, the start of what I can only hope will become a mini-tradition. I’m taking my family out for hamburgers to celebrate selling the US rights to Girl Runner. We should have celebrated the Canadian rights with … pancakes and maple syrup?
This morning, I walked. It wasn’t a run, and it didn’t flood me with world-conquering endorphins, but it was sanctioned by a health care practioner, and I was glad to be moving through the world, no matter how slowly. “Try a thirty minute walk,” the physio said. “And if you feel fine after 24 hours, bump it up to thirty-five. When you get to an hour without symptoms, you can try 5-10 minutes of easy jogging.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’m on it!
This is progress. And the pace, on this misty-moisty morning, suited me just fine. Everyone who passed on the sidewalk said hello. I noticed people sitting on their front porches, quietly observing, one of the many details I miss when running down an early morning street.
I’m still humming after yesterday’s creative writing class. As I sat there, in our acoustically challenged bunker of a classroom, listening to four different animated conversations rising and falling, and all of them about a poem, I just felt good. I saw why the teachers I know love doing what they do. My mushy general goal for the class is engagement: with words, with language, with emotions. Beyond that, I’d really like it if on occasion we were all transported just a little bit, to somewhere not quite ordinary. Maybe I’m secretly trying to recreate my poetry book club in classroom form: a safe place to talk about big ideas, like mortality and love and what really matters to us, and why.
I discovered another fascinating, inspiring and moving obituary in yesterday’s paper: Anne Goodman, a professor of adult education and community development at OISE, and a woman who was many other things, too, in a life cut short by cancer. She led the kind of life I admire, shifting her energy to different work as she felt called, with deep engagement at every step, always true to herself. The title of today’s post is a quote from the obituary. In 1999, a pivotal experience altered Dr. Goodman’s life’s direction. She met a man, a stranger, on a path somewhere in Toronto who needed immediate help. The remains of his murdered teenage daughter had just been found, down that path — he was going there, now, he told Anne Goodman. She walked with him, listened to him, and stayed with him when they came to the place where the police were. She said that she couldn’t let him go alone.
I am struck by this story. So often all we have to offer is a willingness to walk along with someone else. Maybe we’re the listener, or maybe we’re the one talking, but without a shared willingness to connect, we can neither give nor receive. One more thing: that we really don’t know what’s ahead, we just don’t. So prepare a carefully plotted path, but stay open.
All of which is to say: I loved saying good morning, this morning, to strangers on the sidewalk. I did not wish I were running instead, because I was thrilled to be walking. There is agency and there is circumstance, and right now, circumstance is ascendant: I’d love to be waking early, racing trails, and swinging kettlebells, but instead I’m doing less, not more, and reflecting on stillness rather than motion. You know me. It’s not what I’d choose, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring and embracing while it lasts.
Side note: I will be reading at Word on the Street tomorrow afternoon, 4pm, an event that’s paired with Doors Open. So you can tour a heritage site (I’ll be at the Walper Hotel) and pause to listen to some readings while you’re at it. Lots of terrific, big-name authors are coming to town.
pretending to sleep
This Monday morning is not brought to you by an efficient or clear-headed start. It begins with a sore throat, an unwillingness to rise early, and a sense of being behind on each and every task of the day. Honestly, I could happily go back to bed right now, and it’s not even noon. I have only my own work to do, and must locate some inner will power and just do it. While washing the dishes last night, I thought, if it were only me, I would be leaving these dishes on the counter and collapsing on the couch in front of bad tv. So many of the things that I do every day, I do only because I have to. I have to lest the larger collective project of family fall apart. I can’t veg on the couch when there’s laundry, dishes, kids need baths and grooming, piano practice and homework wrangling, and the week ahead is waiting to be discussed with Kevin and scheduled out on the chalkboard.
So I just do it, though not with the enthusiasm or fervor of a slogan. Nope. I just do it. Trudge.
Maybe that’s why I get a lot done. I’ve got these dependents, expecting and needing structure. If it were just me, what would I be doing? Maybe every day would look a lot like this morning has: sleepy, dull-eyed, slow-moving, and oddly unconcerned. I would read the paper and drink coffee.
Or would I?
After all, I do have a big sense of adventure to satisfy, and, often, an inner whirlwind of energy. Today just doesn’t happen to be whirling with energy. I’m a bit sick. I’m tired. I spent a multi-faceted weekend in happy activity, bouncing from place to place. I ran 14km through the fog on Friday night; coffee date with my elder son on Saturday morning; baked bread; met with Tricia and our friend Steve to discuss filming for our Amazing Race audition video; library with elder daughter; dinner date with Kev; up at 6am Sunday morning to drive soccer girl to a game in Mississauga (through blinding rain and dark); home in time to grab a banana, change, and head out to film scenes for audition video in a nearby park (splashing through cold puddles and weeds, trying to get muddy, and look tough / photogenic / captivating / ourselves); home to change for a really fun soccer game; and, well, that just about catches us up to those supper dishes. It was kind of non-stop.
Until about 10pm last night, when I just stopped and haven’t really started up again in full indomitable Carrie mode. Feeling a touch domitable. (Domitable? Nope, just checked: not a word.)
I know how to be when I’m rolling and up and moving and full of enthusiasm. It’s when I’m tired and sick(ish) and worn out that I don’t know how to be — I don’t know what to do with myself, or how to rest. Know what I mean? (Stretch, Carrie, stretch.)
early morning sticky buns
new Christmas jams/hams (click on photos to see in full)
doggies’ first Christmas (click on photos to see in full)