“Little Things” with full cast; illustrations by Tarunima Mittal
Well, in truth I can hardly remember what happened yesterday, let alone these past few months, but apparently, during the blur of lockdown and walks around the block and waiting, a few remarkable things have happened, of which I’ve been a part.
The X Page Workshop is completing its season three run TONIGHT (July 7th, 2021) with a live performance on Zoom! Tickets are free and you can register to attend right up till it starts at 7PM. I am truly in awe of what’s been accomplished by this group in 12 short weeks … on a compressed schedule … in a virtual space … Live online means accepting that some unknowns are out of our control (like, should I start worrying about a massive thunderstorm that shuts off the power? Okay, just checked the Weather Network and it’s calling for light rain over that time); but we’ve done everything we can to prepare those elements over which we do have some agency. And I think that’s the key to life, isn’t it? Prepare, and also let go. Let it be what it will be.
And here’s what it already is:
Sixteen women from the community, writing, editing, and polishing their own original, personal story.
Rehearsing it, vocal coaching, staging it, practicing it in small groups and at home.
Learning framing, lighting, how to angle the camera, troubleshooting tech issues.
Negotiating with children and pets and housemates to create a stage on which to present.
Choosing photos, props, outfits, hairstyles.
Supporting everyone else on the team and in the cast with collaboration, creative ideas, presence, encouragement, cheers. Such generosity!
Not to mention all the behind-the-scenes work to create a slideshow, program, original artwork, cohesive script, extra rehearsal time, tech support, and clear communication to keep everyone rowing in synch.
And on a personal note, there’s more work in the works, for which I am over-flowing with gratitude. As soon as this project ends, I’ll be diving into revisions for my new novel, with a planned pub date of next summer. It’s called Francie’s Got A Gun, and I’m starting to believe it will be a real thing … but you can ask me again in a month or so, when the first round of revisions are due. I plan to dive deep and stay deep till that work is complete.
I’ve also received a second grant toward the project I’m working on with my grandma. Much of the research is complete, and writing has begun; but I will be setting it aside temporarily to finish Francie. One thing at a time. One big project at a time, anyway. (I think I can keep cooking dinner and fetching veggies and doing yoga and other good summer things.) At times, it feels like I’m half-asleep, working in slow-motion, digging my way through deep tunnels, burrowing into what seem like dead ends, and then I surface and wake in wonder at all that is being accomplished, even if the pace seems whimsical, even if I lose some of the good stuff underground. I don’t know how much time I’ll get in this life, but I hope to use it all up, and make (and discover) some beautiful things along the way — ephemeral as a performance, strong as a connection, life-giving as a community, sustaining as a story, well-told.
Hope to see you tonight. And if not there, then somewhere, sometime, virtually or in real life, soon.
I laughed out loud when I heard that Donald Trump quit his blog because no one was reading it. As someone who has been tapping out and publishing blog posts for — eep! — 13 years or so, I would have been happy to predict (for free!) just such an outcome for Trump and his marketing team. A blog is old-school. It’s of the past. That’s probably why I like it so much! It’s like a dream journal, but with an option to press publish. It feels both personal and anonymous (maybe that’s a bit of fiction I use to allow myself to keep posting, but that’s honestly how it feels). Connections are made that seem random and serendipitous.
Other tech platforms have replaced blogs, but so far I haven’t felt compelled to move from this medium that’s as comfortable now as a worn-in pair of jeans. I see creative people posting videos of themselves journaling out loud on Instagram, or streaming on YouTube, and of course TikTok provides a dynamic platform that seems to vault some into viral sensations, something no blog could ever do. Those are visual and aural mediums, where personalities and characters can make a sharp, quick impact on the senses; and a blog is mostly composed of the written word. Of course, the blog has also been largely replaced by the subscriber-based newsletter. And the Instagram feed provides a platform for mini-posts that feel quite blog-like: photo + words.
Where am I going with this rambling reflection on digital communications? Maybe I’m trying to figure out what this blog means to me, and why I keep returning, when other, more popular self-publishing platforms exist. I think I come back because it feels easy. The pace is calm, based purely on my interests and time in any given week. There’s no expectation that something needs to be published on Friday morning, or Sunday night; no endless stream to keep feeding, to try to be seen, noticed, liked. It’s just me and this comforting box on the screen, into which I’ve been typing words for many years.
It doesn’t feel like I’m “creating content” here.
I’m just being me, in the comforting ways that this medium allows me appear.
I would appear as someone different, somewhere else, at least a little bit, and while that could be just fine, and maybe I will experiment and grow into different ways of presenting myself, I like the me that gets to be here, at least for now.
More later …
PS Do you blog? If so, tell me why in the comments and please link to your blog.
Last week I attended live webinar sessions on publicity and marketing, hosted by Penguin Random House, and open to any PRH author. (Please don’t stop reading just because I said “webinar”!) My only expectation was that this would be outside my comfort zone; and that I needed to attempt to engage on this subject, and at least acknowledge the truth that to publish a book is to be called to champion that book. And let’s be frank: the call to personally champion and publicize one’s own book feels overwhelming. (A stat dropped during one of the sessions: over 200 books are published each week — that may be a US-specific stat, but the point remains. It’s a crowded marketplace. What’s a writer to do?)
First, I want to confess that I enjoyed the webinars a lot. (This may be a sign that a) I’m starved of peer-to-peer contact and b) must start inviting friends over again to the back yard shack — it’s been a long, cold winter!)
Second, the most practical advice I gleaned is to tailor your approach to your own interests, abilities, affinities. Also useful: if you’re using social media for publicity purposes do it like this: get on, post, get off. At one point, someone said “You’re looking at branding yourself for a clear trajectory long-term,” and I wrote in my notes (oh god, I have not done this well at all!), by which I meant having “a clear trajectory.” I won’t even touch the subject of branding, but the question that kept humming around my brain was: Is anyone going to ask what happens when you make yourself into a brand? (No one did, me included; honestly, it wasn’t the right forum for that question, if there is a right forum.)
Third, the sessions made clear that most successful writers get good at a bunch of things (podcasting, publishing a newsletter, posting videos on TikTok or streaming on Instagram Live, or teaching, speaking, etc.), and the books they publish are just one thread in a web of activities, built around their interests and expertise. Okay. But does this apply more aptly to writers of non-fiction: academics, public figures, chefs or doctors? Maybe; I observed that most of the best-selling authors profiled in these sessions were writing non-fiction. However, I think this approach can make sense for fiction writers too — if it builds and develops naturally.
Confession: I’m resistant to the idea of self-promotion. It feels self-serving, and I’m uncomfortable with that; further, it’s the part of the job that in the past drained my energy and ambition, filled me with dread and fear. Even writing this post is giving me twitches of shame. I sense myself needing to explain: everyone does it, it has to be done, they’re telling me I need to be good at this, I’m just trying to figure out how. Please forgive me, please don’t hate me.
That desire to be liked goes deep, but it’s not just that; I’ve been conditioned to believe, way down deep, that women who stand up and demand an audience aren’t just unlikeable, they’re vulnerable. These are deep fears. Drawing attention to myself, becoming a target, getting mired in ego, serving self not others, making claims that maybe can’t be met, over-stepping, saying the wrong thing, getting too comfortable and getting knocked down … so many fears. But here’s what I know: anytime I approach a problem or a goal from a place of fear, I get knotted up, confused, entangled, and overwhelmed.
There is another way, a different approach: to come from a place of clarity, grounded, focused on the goal, attuned to changing contexts, curious, open to learning, and connected to the source of my own values and purpose. Picture a tree with deep roots, branches moving, changing with the seasons. (There’s my vision for a clear long-term trajectory!)
Here’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m going to accept my own challenge, and begin this marketing/publicity exploration from a place of curiosity, by asking:
What resources are already available to me? What am I already practiced at doing? What do I already know?
What would I like to learn or try out? What am I curious about?
Who is with me on this path? Who are my collaborators, mentors, friends and peers? Where do we meet?
What compelled me to write this book, and why does it matter so much to me? What themes and interests are woven into this book that connect with my world and perhaps also with yours?
Answers (musings, reflections, wonderings, and likely more questions), coming soon.
PS I’ve been signing up for more live online events, and I’ve noticed that it’s the live part that works. Has anyone else found this too? Even with my microphone and camera off, it feels like I’m part of something — an audience member, a participant, engaged, ever so slightly necessary to the proceedings; pre-recorded doesn’t compare. (Then again, neither does live in-person, but we take what we can get right now!)
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.
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