It’s been a week of busyness with little opportunity for reflection. It’s been an up and down week, emotionally, and it’s just struck me that I’m finishing my November, as I often do, in a bit of funk. Is it the shortened days, the vanishing light, the overhanging clouds, the chilly winds, the general gloom of a world stripped bare and not yet blanketed in bright snow? Probably, yes.
But it’s also an existential Novemberness that alights every year. A wondering what it is I’ve accomplished this year, and what’s left to complete, as if I am a list of tasks done or undone. And maybe I am? But maybe, maybe I’m not, in truth.
As Kevin tells me, Life is not going to give you First Prize. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’ve written a good book. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good parent. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good person.
I’ve fallen to pieces on a few occasions this past week. I’ve been filled with unaccountable shame. This is not the face or person I present to the world, but my kids have to stumble over it. They’ve seen me crying and have found ways to comfort me, with compassion and rationality; and I worry that I’m harming them by not being as solid as rock, as rooted as an oak tree, as strong as diamonds.
I suspect that this feeling of vulnerability and exposure is cumulative. It’s been a fall of presenting my book in public to audiences interested and sometimes not so much; that’s the reality and necessity of publishing books. One must promote one’s work. One must speak on behalf of the work in hopes that the work gets found and adopted and championed by others. I have many many wonderful memories from events this fall, and in truth, very few that are even mildly distressing. So I suspect this feeling of vulnerability and exposure has little to do with the quality and worthiness of the events themselves, but rather with a sustained public stance that has been more difficult for me to participate in than I’ve allowed myself to recognize.
After all, I enjoy reading from my work. I enjoy meeting other writers, and readers. I enjoy sharing my thoughts, and appreciate immensely being invited to participate. These are enormous blessings. I am enormously grateful.
But the shadow side is that I don’t think the human character is designed to absorb even the modest amount of attention that’s come to me this fall. I don’t think we’re particularly good at it. It doesn’t tend to make us into better people. It tends to make us think we’re something special. And even while we’re thinking that, we know we’re not special at all, and the disconnect and disharmony of having to sustain and project the confidence of having something worth saying, while fearing one doesn’t, creates a cognitive dissonance.
I’ve felt kind of hollow this last little while. Hollow, and, in truth, lonely. Removed from myself.
Restoring an interior balance and sense of location and groundedness seems the answer. Advent starts tomorrow, a season of waiting, and I like that metaphor. I don’t mind waiting. I’ll never arrive, not really, because I’ll never cease changing. I want to inhabit deliberate patience. I want to discipline my mind away from its taste for quick hits of attention, and return it to the slow and steady onward pace of life in its daily ritual and routine, a life of small adventures, private successes, and strength through connection.
How I fit in the public work that is necessary to my job — and important (teaching is important, for example!) — is a question I’m not entirely able to answer at the moment, but I think it relates directly to maintaining disciplined habits and routines. Maybe too — this has just come to me, just now — it relates to forgiveness. Maybe it is mainly in my own mind that I’m falling short. Maybe, secretly, I really do believe in a First Prize for anything and everything, and as long as I cling to my imaginary scale of external validation, I’ll exist in a kind of permanent November of the spirit. And I would rather not.
At the Wild Writers Festival this weekend, here in Waterloo, I took my daughter along to volunteer. At lunchtime, I gave her some money and she went across the street to the grocery store to buy herself something for lunch.
Something for lunch, as purchased by AppleApple: a 500 ml tub of lime-flavoured Greek yogurt; a plastic-wrapped English cucumber; a loaf of Italian-style bread.
She found me in the green room, chatting with a handful of writers/editors/publishers, sat down beside me at the table. “This must be your daughter,” was a refrain we heard all day. “What’s that?” said the editor. “It’s my lunch,” said my daughter.
And then, this-must-be-my-daughter proceeded to eat the cucumber, whole, in great munching bites. I didn’t see what happened to the bread. The yogurt she polished off directly too. I could not have been more proud.
The thing about blogging is that so much gets left out. I haven’t, so far, made this a particularly political space. It’s not terribly ideological either. That doesn’t mean I lack for political thoughts and opinions, simply that I haven’t felt this to be the place and space to raise them.
I’m struggling with this choice at present. There are zeitgeist moments when an issue seems to get ripped open and demand conversation. But the conversation is never ever simple, that’s why issues are buried and need an almost shocking violence to bring them to the surface; we don’t want to have these conversations. Why would we? They’re painful. They tear us apart. They challenge our safe ideas of who we are. In Canada, that issue is sexual harassment and violence against women, and underlying it, biases and beliefs so entrenched that we don’t even notice they’re there. It’s distressing and depressing to be talking about this again or still. I suspect that no one wants to talk about this less than women. I consider myself an equal. I consider our culture much-changed and for the better. But it hurts my head to try to make melodic the dissonant chords of experience.
Consider this. A woman on stage presenting her book: she looks like she doesn’t care, she gives off an aura of irritation, responds to questions with her own personal grievances, cuts others off, and appears to be drunk. Would this ever happen? I’ve never seen it. But I’ve seen a man on stage doing that. (Granted, it’s unlikely to win him fans, but he still feels like he can do it.)
Maybe that’s a bad example. I would never want to feel like I could do that.
What about this? A woman writer on stage making fun of the other writers on stage, all in good fun. This also almost never happens, but if you think about it, friendly mockery is frequently the patter between men on stage, and it is funny, it’s appealing, not negative. So why do women rarely do it? Could we get away it? I wonder. It’s not that women can’t be funny on stage. I’ve seen a lot of funny women on stage these past two months. But here’s the difference: women on stage make fun of themselves. (So do men sometimes; I’m not suggesting otherwise.) That’s funny too. It’s self-deprecating. But it’s not the same thing.
I think that’s the difference between the privilege of being taken at face value, of being given the benefit of the doubt, and not. Some of us women would like to be joking around in public with the men (and women), joining in the joke—really, that’s what it is. Some of us would like not always to be so damn self-deprecating in order to get laughs. We would like to be taken seriously without having to be so serious. I would like that very much, at least on occasion. I would like it to be an option. This is a small small observation, and you may think it unrelated to the issue at hand, and certainly it’s not serious in the way that sexual harassment and violence is serious. But I think it’s a small piece of the larger picture. It points to a difference in the parameters of public behaviour open to women who wish to be taken seriously, versus men.
Listen. I’m a polite Canadian woman. I fear offending. I’m not especially brave. (And may not be very funny, either.) I prefer to be liked. I can’t help worrying as I push publish on this post. But I’m going to push it anyway.
This is good. I’ve got the third load of laundry already spinning in the drier, I’ve swiped mud and leaves and dog fur off the floor with a rag, focusing on a few critical areas, and I’ve been through every room and soccer bag and countertop looking for dirty socks, library books, and notices from school. The house is in good shape and everything looks under control. My family is awesome!
I still haven’t seen the kids. I can’t believe I have to go out and teach almost as soon as they’re home after school, but we’ll get through it. It’s a PD day on Friday, so we’ll have time to reacquaint ourselves before this weekend’s events take me away from home again. (It’s the Wild Writers Festival here in Waterloo, and I’m going to Uxbridge to read with Frances Itani at Blue Heron’s Books & Brunch).
I had a lot of fun yesterday evening. I did not win. The prize went to Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. I’d expected her book to win, and therefore did not approach the event with any expectations of my own, aside from the desire to be intensely present, open, and filled with gratitude at being witness to this moment in time. I was so grateful to have a ceremony to attend, no matter the outcome. All of my publishing people were with me from House of Anansi, my agent Hilary, and Kevin too. We went out for a feast afterward too. It felt like the moment had been marked, when all was said and done.
I do like to mark the moment. So thank you, thank you, those who helped me mark this one. I am blessed.
I’m glad to be home.
I had a thought while sorting laundry in the basement, just now. I thought: “this hasn’t been life-changing.” Then I wondered what that meant, and what exactly “it” might refer to. I think I was thinking of the prize and being a finalist. It isn’t life-changing, not in the way we think of things as being life-changing, and I wonder, would it have been life-changing to have won? I’m not convinced. Maybe it’s because I do not wish or want my life to be changed. Maybe it’s because I’m certain that prizes do not define any of us, that to be who we are — more precisely, who we want to be — is a constant commitment that is poorly served by reliance on external recognition. The peak moment fades. We go on, you know. We do.
I think life is as it is, and I am who I am, no matter what scenes I move through or what clothes I’m wearing. Don’t misunderstand, please: It’s been loads of fun. I take none of it for granted, and I’ve relished every opportunity to be here now. I’ve met or been reacquainted with many many many writers, and have had many memorable conversations, be they funny, happy, silly, serious, insightful, kind-hearted or all of the above. I feel a part of the “class of 2014.”
Now I want to get back to the work of writing another book. I want to get back to discipline and routine, family and friends, soccer and music. That’s not contradictory, I think, I hope.
PS Calgary’s Wordfest produced an audio play of the first chapter of Girl Runner. It’s beautiful. If you want to hear Aggie’s voice, young and old, listen here.
I’m in Toronto.
The Weather Network informs me that it is 12 degrees, feels like 10, with a mix of sun and cloud expected today. When I turn my head and look out the window, I can see highway and cars travelling past in an endless stream; and the Redpath sugar factory. I had a reading last night in Burlington, with the other finalists for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, and we’re reading together again tonight here in Toronto at Harbourfront. I’ll be back for more readings/panels on Saturday and Sunday.
This morning, I had breakfast with my French editor, a graceful and down-to-earth woman, which is an unusual combination, I think. I myself am down-to-earth but not so graceful; or else, I aim for grace and perhaps lose the down-to-earthyness. Who knows, this may be a completely inaccurate look in the mirror. I am looking in an actual mirror right now and a woman with tired eyes looks back at me, smile lines around her currently unsmiling mouth, hair unkempt.
I feel in the process of a transition (isn’t one always, though?). I feel that what is happening right now, on this fall tour, is that I am finding a way to say goodbye not only to my character, Aganetha, and to Girl Runner, but to the sound of my own voice talking on and on about my character and my book. What a pleasure it will be to escape into a new fictional world, to hear from new fictional characters, to listen to voices other than my own. I’m talking myself back into the desire — the need — for quiet, for the life inside the mind.
This is all very out here, this time of publicity. Publicity = Public. I put myself out into public on this blog, of course, but that feels different (although perhaps it shouldn’t). It feels under my control (though, again, perhaps it shouldn’t). When I write these posts, I imagine that no one is reading them. Which is how I write fiction too: privately. But neither is meant to stay private; I don’t write to keep it to myself. And then what was private becomes public. And then, well, what does the private person do with herself, out in public, the person accustomed to living so entirely inside her head?
Sometimes, during my travels this fall, I’ve heard myself speaking out loud to myself; not always kindly. Critiquing a performance. Critiquing, even, a passing exchange, as stupid or graceless or aloof or too familiar; there is no balance to my judgement.
Here is the truth about being a writer. There are seemingly infinite opportunities for humiliation. These are cut with nano-second bursts of awesomeness, when the stars align and all possibilities seem to hover within reach. The awesomeness will promptly be extinguished by a new opportunity for humiliation, or, less dramatically, another awkward encounter into which one wanders, or perhaps causes. This can make a person feel delusional. But being a writer is about sustaining delusions, I think; or put more kindly, it’s about having faith in the imaginary. It’s about believing in something that does not yet exist, and willing it into existence. It’s believing in one’s capacity to do the work, and sustaining that belief even at the darkest moments. It’s that breath that keeps the flame alive.
So I’m trying to remind myself to be kind. To speak kindly when speaking out loud to myself in airport bathrooms and fast-falling elevators. The tone of the inner voice makes a difference to one’s inner life, the life going on behind the tired eyes in the mirror. It’s not delusional to be kind. It’s important. Also, it’s grounding, and I need grounding when I’m away from home, away from all of the things that keep me rooted: the routines, the children, the laundry, the carefully constructed and thoroughly loved mess of my whole life.
Say you’ve read Girl Runner. Say you’ve liked it. Or even, like this reviewer, say you’ve loved it. You think others should read it too. And you can’t wait to read the next book by this writer. Dear Reader, if this is you, please consider. There is much you can do to help. Small things. Practical things. Things that could make a huge difference in the life of this book.
Here are some ideas:
* Review and rate Girl Runner at the big online bookstores. You know the ones. (Visit here and here.) Positive reviews and ratings help move the book higher up in the rankings and bring it greater visability. (Negative reviews don’t help; if these exist, rate the review itself as unhelpful.)
* Ask for Girl Runner at your local bookstore. If they don’t have it, tell the owner/manager/book-loving-employee why they must.
* If Girl Runner is already at your local bookstore, hurray! Tell the owner/manager/book-loving-employee how happy you are to see the book, and how much you like/love it. Make sure the book’s cover is visible, facing forward on the shelf.
* Buy the book. Sounds obvious, and you already have, right? It may surprise you how often this practical step is overlooked.
* Tell your friends about the book. We choose books for lots of reasons, and a personal recommendation might just be the most compelling reason of all.
* If you have a book club, suggest Girl Runner for an upcoming pick. (Sometimes I even visit book clubs; visit my contact page for more info.)
* If you have a blog, write about Girl Runner. If you’re on Goodreads or Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or Instagram or whatever the kids are using these days, post about Girl Runner. (And please tell me what the kids are using these days! I need to keep up with my teenager.) Tell people why they’d enjoy the book. “Like” my author page on Facebook.
Dear Reader, Virtually all of this holds true for any book you love. And virtually all writers are just like me: hoping their offering gets found and read. Spread the love, pass it on.
P.S. This post has been shamelessly plagiarized from this other post, which I wrote two and a half years ago, immediately after the publication of The Juliet Stories.
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.)
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