I’ve been reading Charles Foran’s biography of Mordecai Richler. It’s a fat book and I’m not even halfway through, but already lines are jumping off the page. I’m deeply intrigued by the portrait of the formative writer–the kid, no more than twenty, who set off to Europe cadging money from any willing family member or friend, working as if possessed, carousing, ambitious. That’s what strikes me most about his formative years, when he was writing frantically and receiving nothing but rejection letters–the sheer volume of his ambition. Of course, in part what he displays is youth. And he had talent even if it was awfully raw at that point in his life. He had luck too. Just before he left Europe to return to Montreal, broke, just twenty-one, he found an agent who admired his potential, and helped him see his way into this life he was demanding for himself.
Charles Foran writes about what might have happened, had Richler not been found and professionally validated; he had a lead on a job at the CBC and in fact worked there briefly writing news copy; but not for long. “By 1952, CBC radio and the new television network were already the destination of choice for those with talent and culture who dared not risk seeing if they could really make a go of it as artists…” [my emphasis]
Guess what Mordecai Richler dared to do?
What elements make up the personality of someone willing, as Foran writes, “to hustle, do what was required. … Henceforth, he would be freelance, his own master and servant. Without security. Without nets.” Brash? Egocentric? Bold? Calculating? Intensely focused? In many ways, it’s not the nicest personality, is it? It can’t really be. You can’t worry about pleasing others, or meeting conventional expectations. It helps not to be apologetic in your approach. Why apologize for being who you are?
(Side question: Does this apply mainly to male artists? Personally, I don’t think so, though traditionally it’s been less acceptable for women to be unapologetic in their ambitions. Now where the heck does motherhood fit into the bold/brash/intensely focused rubric?).
One more thing. Around this same time, Richler wrote to his editor Diana Athill: “Often I think I don’t like or dislike writing, it’s just something I’ve got to do.”
I read those words and felt like something in me had been struck. Yes.
This week has been a flurry. There’s a lot of hustling going on. At various moments during any given day it feels like I’m keeping up; not keeping up; almost keeping up; hanging on by sheer will; taking a tumble; staying with it; losing track; back in the game; organized; overwhelmed. But mostly, okay.
I’m okay because I keep landing on this thought that completely amazes me: I’m doing what I want to do. No, you know, it’s even more amazing than that: I’m doing what I’ve got to do.
Yesterday, a reader commented on my Green Dreams post, which was written about a year and a half ago. This morning, I read that post again and found these words, which feel like a wise reminder from my (slightly) younger self:
I would like to offer my time–because I have it, and I’m grateful for that gift–to living creatively. Anyone who’s ever made anything knows that there is a great deal of invisible work behind what’s created. There is the original vision, changed and altered and made deeper by reflection and time, there is work, there is error and recognition of error, and incorporation of error, too, and there is luck, happenstance, improvisation. There are bursts of production and activity, and lulls of wondering, daydreaming, even doubt. There is sacrifice. You have to figure out if it’s worth it to you–figure out what you’re sacrificing, and why you want to.
Mostly, though, you just do it: you do the work you’ve chosen to do.
Living creatively, improvising, digging in, committing, taking risks, messing up, pausing to reflect, continuing, trying new things and rediscovering the tried and true: that pretty much sums up my life at present–or at least, the life I’m aiming for, every day. Yours, too?
On that note, I’d like to tell you about a few projects I’m currently digging into.
* increasing subscribers to my blog: If you look on the right-hand side of the blog, I’ve got links to a variety of extras, including a new feature that allows you to type in your email address and receive blog posts in your inbox. We’re still tinkering with this (and by “we” I mean my techie friend Nath is troubleshooting for me), but I’d be happy if you signed up. And then please let me know if it’s working for you.
* Storywell: My friend Susan has launched a business aimed at helping people tell their stories: “Whether you are writing for your own family and community, aiming at publication, or needing help in telling your company or organization’s tale, we can help you tell your story well. We offer you a team of professional writers, editors and proofreaders whose goal is to help you develop as a writer.” And guess what? I’m one of the professional writers on her team. Interested, or know someone who might be? Get in touch.
* a new challenge: “Make Carrie’s Book a Bestseller.” Okay it’s a crazy challenge over which I have no real sway. Even publishers don’t know how books make it onto bestseller lists, the compilers of which seem to collect data from a variety of unpredictable sources. But I think it will be fun. Kevin is the brains behind the idea. He created and hosts a flexible web site for his business that can be used by personal trainers as a forum to run challenges. We’re using that forum to create a challenge called: “Help Make Carrie’s Book a Bestseller.” The site is still under construction, but I plan to have it ready to launch in the new year, and you will be invited to join. I only have one hope for my book, and that’s that it will get read. Then it can speak for itself.
* early to rise: This isn’t really a project, it’s just something I want to continue whether or not I’m working toward a particular race (my next one is in March, which still seems too far off to be highly motivating). I like the ethic involved in getting up early. I like that it’s not easy. It’s not easy, but it’s ALWAYS rewarding. This morning, my internal alarm woke me up for yoga. I’d planned to sleep instead, but when my eyes saw 5:48 on the clock, I recognized that it was a little gift, and I accepted it. Few of my evenings are free. My only guaranteed alone time is in the early morning hours. I’ve never been a morning person and even now do not consider myself one; but that doesn’t mean I can’t rise early and move my body and stride confidently into the day.
(Just realized that this looks like an early New Year’s resolution list. It’s not meant to be. I’m very ho-hum on resolutions. I prefer big picture overviews of the past year combined with swooping excitement and energy beamed at the year ahead. Every year on the eve of my birthday–which is Dec. 29th–I write just such an overview in my journal, by hand. Very old-school. Very satisfying.)
My next book exists in a publisher’s catalogue. Look for it on pages 22 and 23, House of Anansi. My picture is in there too (does it look too serious? too intense? too “brooding-writer-who-would-be-no-fun-at-a-party”? Maybe I should send them a different photo for the cover).
The irony, of course, is that I continue to polish this new book, so for me, it’s not finished enough to exist anywhere; the catalogue copy, to me, reads like a birth announcement made at 34 weeks gestation. I never named my babies in utero, and always felt a bit superstitious about pre-birth baby showers. Let’s get this baby born, bathed, and bundled before sharing the good news. But how done is done? I remember a funny conversation with the doctor who oversaw the early months of my first pregnancy. I said, “So when I get through the first trimester, I can stop worrying, right?” (I was terribly anxious about miscarrying). And she gave me an odd look: “Um, I’m not sure you ever stop worrying,” she said gently. Riiiiight.
So I suppose, if conflating book-production with having children (a facetious comparison, let’s be honest), it stands to reason that even with the last “t” crossed and “i” dotted, joy will continue to mingle with unease.
The other morning, we were reading an article in the newspaper about a man who is training for a traithlon. It’s part of a regular weekly series: the paper profiles someone relatively well-known and a trainer helpfully critiques his/her exercise plan. I was shocked by how little training this man was doing, and how confident he sounded, and Albus thought that the paper should come and interview me instead: “You should be in the newspaper, Mom.” I explained that the fellow was being profiled not for his excellent triathlon-training, but because he was relatively well-known. But, I said, when my new book comes out, we probably will be able to read some things about me in some newspapers.
The kids were blown away by the idea. That’s when it struck me: Albus and AppleApple were 2 and 14 months, respectively, when Hair Hat came into existence. They had zero awareness of their mother being anything other than their mother. It was news to everyone that, in fact, I’d been in the newspaper when Hair Hat came out, and they thought this was just plain awesome.
But dancing oneself into the public eye involves grabbing for a double-edged sword. I was fortunate enough to read multiple positive reviews of Hair Hat before the first negative review came in, several months post-publication. It gutted me. (Obviously, I recovered). So that’s what I explained to the kids: when the new book gets reviewed, we all have to pray that it falls into the hands of readers who appreciate it. Because no book will please everyone, and there’s much luck-of-the-draw fate that can befall a book. Such is the way of art, and individuality, and taste. Even positive reviews almost always highlight some small flaw, as if to note: nothing’s perfect. Fair enough. Nothing is.
I think this sobered the kids up a bit. Me, too, but for different reasons. Last time around, it was really just me who was affected by the publicity process. I could turn away and bury myself in my babies’ oblivious needs. I identified myself, even in my own head, as “mother,” not “writer,” and that comforted me. This time around, it’s different. I’ve got no babies, nor have I the prospect of more. Instead, I’ve got some interested parties tagging along for the ride. And I’m beginning to wonder: what’s the tipping point at which I become more working-mother and less stay-at-home mother?
It feels like I’ve metamorphosed without noticing, during this long stretch between books.