Wow. I tuned in to an amazing event at the Wild Writer’s Literary Festival yesterday evening. Managed to squeeze it in between the whole family getting their flu shots at a drive-through clinic (amazingly well-run, and gives me hope for the future of public health care in Canada) and birthday cake and gifts for this newly minted adult, pictured above with her sister’s homemade carrot cake. The aforementioned amazing literary event was a panel on the short story, with Souvankham Thammavongsa, Jack Wang, and Vinh Nyugen. Souvankham just won the Giller Prize with her collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife, and Jack Wang is the author of a recently published collection that I want to read too, We Two Alone, and Vinh Nyugen is a professor of English who happens to be teaching a short story class to my son, who in his first term of Arts at the University of Waterloo. And How to Pronounce Knife is on the syllabus; my son is now on his second read, and says he has to write his assignment before I can get a chance to read it myself.
But last night, I got a taste of both writer’s styles, and, oh, it was wonderful. Both writers read from each other’s stories, and that flipped the usual way things are done, and made it somehow so much better. It was a treat for the writers, too, to hear their words read with such affection by someone else. I love the short story as a form. And it was so interesting to hear their approaches to writing short stories. Jack Wang said he tries to see how much he can stuff into the short story and still make it work; and Souvankham Thammavongsa talked about making what we take for granted into something strange; and also about how she wants her endings to devastate the reader.
I loved that. I’ve never wanted to admit that as a goal, but damn if it isn’t true. To write toward a feeling rather than an idea seemed to be something both writers agreed on.
And there was more. I think you can access the interview on the Wild Writers website till the end of the November. And you should, if, like me, you’re craving deep intricate exploration of the ways in which stories work, or can work, or might work, and how they get made. Or even if you just want your brain pushed open a bit. I don’t make my stories in quite the same way, but that’s what made their conversation so interesting — maybe I could try different ways of entering into a story, maybe I could try shoving more in, why not? What would happen? I’ll be thinking for a long time about Souvankham’s Point A, Point B, and Point C (the last one being the point that the writer knows about that doesn’t get into the story at all, but exists outside of it, calling to the reader from out past its boundaries).
I also spent some time scrutinizing the backgrounds of the rooms in which each writer was speaking, because I’ve got a few events online to attend myself, and I want to know … things I really don’t know. Like, which wall in my house would make the best background, and do I need extra lighting, and should I wear makeup, and if I’m going to half-dress-up (top half only, of course) what colours work best on-screen, and will my knock-off bluetooth ear buds conk out midway through and what then?
Clearly, these are things that must be figured out by doing, and there are a lot of people learning how to do these things well, from whom I’m sure I can learn lots.
Meanwhile, this is the set-up I’m going to try out, mainly because it’s closest to the router. But the bookshelves make a good background, I think. Please wish me luck as I dip my toe into this new online literary existence this evening, in the brief role of “Introducer” for a conversation between Lamees Al Ethari and Antonio Michael Downing (also at the Wild Writers Literary Festival); and tomorrow morning, as I read my picture book Jammie Day to a friend’s online kindergarten class!
PS For those of you who read these posts as a newsletter received via email, the timing on the aforementioned events will be off by a day. This post was written on Thursday afternoon but due to automation beyond my control (or expertise, more accurately!), it will be sent on Friday. And I can report, updating this post on Friday morning, that both events were more interactive, more natural-feeling, and most importantly more fun than I’d dared to hope they could be. It felt like I could be myself. At the Wild Writers event, the conversation was thought-provoking, personal, and got my brain pinging with ideas. And after the Jammie Day reading and Q&A, all the kindergarteners stood up to show me their pyjamas, and then turned on their microphones to send me a chorus of goodbyes and thank-yous. It was wonderful.
(Yes, I put on a bit of make-up; yes, I borrowed a ring light from my husband, who does online presentations all the time; and I’m pretty sure no one saw my bright-patterned leggings, or noticed that I was sitting cross-legged on a yoga block on the floor!)
This blog is like a corkboard on which to post thoughts, observations, whatever is front-of-mind right now. It acts as a public journal, an I WAS HERE scrawl on the wall. Trouble is, recently, whenever I sit down to post something, it’s not clear to me what’s front-of-mind. Mind is a-jumble. Influences are disparate and scrolling, images aflame, voices shouting, protests, outrage. What calls my attention is both very personal and tiny (my morning routine, for example) and overwhelmingly political and heavy (can’t even begin to list it parenthetically).
This morning I read an article by Lori Fox in The Globe and Mail that pretty much sums up what I’ve been ranting to Kevin about for these past many months. Please read what she’s written and know that I’m nodding along. At one point in the article, she writes about her own “small, selfish” dream. It’s a lovely dream. To paraphrase: Work that is useful and that she loves doing. Enough, and the time to enjoy it. A life with dignity and love.
It’s small enough, isn’t it, that everyone should dare to dream such a dream? Everyone should have the means of achieving it? It doesn’t sound selfish to me.
Originally, when I sat down to write this post it was about my own lovely week, which I spent reading stories, editing stories, and talking about stories. But when I wrote about how lovely it was, and how purposeful and peaceful I felt doing this work (tiny, personal), I also found myself tracking into the weeds of dismay and guilt, confusion and fury (overwhelming, political) as I reflected on how it was privilege that allowed me to do this work.
Earlier in the week, I watched this interview with Kurt Anderson on PBS (my favourite American news source), and it stirred in me emotions that I’ve been unable to unstir. Essentially, he argues that 1976 was the most equitable year on record (in America), and due to a wealth-driven philosophy that focuses on profit to the exclusion of all other concerns, we now find ourselves living in an economy that offers that “small, selfish” dream to fewer and fewer people. I realize that I live in Canada, not the US, but we’re not immune to troubling inequity. When I eat a peach, I can’t help but think of the hand that picked it, and wonder where that person is from, how much they’re being paid, and where they’re sleeping. Essential work is being done by people who are treated as less-than. And the system makes us complicit, even as we’re stuck in it.
How many people do you know whose work is precarious, cobbled-together gig by gig, without benefits or retirement packages? Look around, and you’ll see that defines a lot of us, even those who seem to be doing okay. How many jobs that were once secure and well-paid are now being done by people who work on contract or freelance? Remember when earning a PhD meant tenure-track job-security? I remember when writers were paid a dollar/word for book reviews published in the newspaper. You can argue that sectors that are struggling are sectors that are becoming obsolete in today’s economy; but that’s not necessarily true. Is education obsolete? Are the arts obsolete? What about news? Long-term care? Sectors struggle for many reasons, but what I see is that a profit-only model doesn’t work for the people who actually do the labour. Because in the profit-only model, labour is a cost. You squeeze the costs down, you make more profit. Ultimately, that means you’re squeezing people — you’re paying people less and less to do more and more. And the people are us.
I can observe all of this, and be outraged, but it tends to lead me toward paralysis. What’s the fix, what’s the cure?
Yesterday, I sat outside and read Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout, which I noticed, upon finishing, is labelled “A Novel.” I think that’s an American thing? The book is actually a collection of linked short stories, my favourite form, although I know linked short stories don’t sell well, so maybe “A Novel” is a marketing thing. In any case, the book doesn’t need to be anything other than what it is: stories about characters (often Olive, but sometimes not) navigating their broken paths and trying to figure out how to talk to each other and protect themselves across divides of class, race, culture, age, abuse, pain, illness, secrecy, experience, self-doubt. It’s brilliant, and I wept often, throughout.
Upon finishing, I thought: I just want to sit and read stories all day long. And then I’ll take a break and write stories for others to read. And then I’ll meet with people who love reading and writing and we’ll talk about it, and I’ll edit my stories and theirs. When I do this work I’m not always right, but I know what I’m doing and why.
Is this a roadmap for a career???? God, let it be so. At the very least, it’s a roadmap for making sense of life. For helping me see and understand and know what matters. And it ain’t profit, my friends (but you already know that!). We all know it, gut-deep: profit isn’t profitable when it costs us our communities, our health, our dignity.
Here’s my own small, selfish dream: I want to read, write, edit, discuss; work that has it uses, its purpose. And I want others to be able to do this work too, as they’re called to it.
Truth: A lot of my work is done on a voluntary basis (it’s my speciality!). But here’s the thing: volunteer work is not necessarily noble. People volunteer because they can afford to. I’m worried that my willingness and ability to work for little to no recompense is part of the problem. Consider the arts sector, where many initiatives survive because of people like me: Doesn’t this very structure — reliance on voluntary labour — create barriers toward participation for everyone who can’t afford to work for free?
But what’s the alternative in a sector that’s not profit-driven and never will be, that survives on grants, fundraising … and underpaid / unpaid labour?
It’s a dilemma that’s been troubling me. A lot.
And I’ve come around to a solution, of sorts: Universal Basic Income. It’s not perfect, but it seems like the viable place to start. A baseline of security, so everyone can afford their own tiny, personal dream: Enough and time to enjoy it. Dignity and love. Work that is useful and that you love doing.
(See what I mean? This post is WAY TOO MUCH, but it’s where my head is at, right now.)
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.
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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?