Celebration; grief. This is me, right now.
How to hold two extreme emotional states within one mind and body, all at once? I can’t do it. Instead, I seem to have landed somewhere in the middle, in flatness that speaks of protection, flatness that is an antidote to fear, but also to joy.
I can’t reveal more, and recognize that it may seem disingenuous or deceptive to hint at drama without offering details. I apologize. I don’t mean to be locked down, or to seem vague or untruthful; but also, this is too much of me not to speak of it at all. The depth of grief involves a personal situation, close to my heart, and I’m unlikely ever to reveal details outside my very closest circle. The height that deserves celebration involves my professional life; and this, I think, will be revealed more widely in due course, just not yet.
To say that I am distracted would be an understatement.
To say that I am challenged is accurate, but not strong enough.
To say I’m hanging in here, staying focused on what matters, jettisoning temporarily all that can be let go, surviving, feeding myself, breathing, reaching out to ask for help as needed, is true, all true.
I look forward to sharing my good news, in good time.
I’m sitting in my cozy office, wearing reading glasses, listening to my favourite Spotify playlist (song of the moment: “Ya veras,” by Systema Solar), office door closed because my elder daughter is practicing piano obsessively. Kids are all home from school, which makes Rose-the-pup very happy. Kevin is mid-flight to Fort McMurray for a work trip. All schools, including the universities, are closed today due to freezing rain. I started teaching more than six years ago, and today’s is the class I’ve ever missed. (Not-Humble-Brag # 1)
I’ve decided that this post’s theme is the Not-Humble-Brag.
I’m uncomfortable with bragging. But it makes me even more uncomfortable to pretend that I’m not bragging. (Side note: Why call it bragging? Why not label it differently in my own mind, as good news, and own the sharing of it?) (Side note # 2: My superstitions are kicking in strongly, as all my instincts scream: if you announce that you have good news, you will be deservedly and instantly punished with bad news!)
Okay, superstitious self, what if the Not-Humble-Brags are less earth-shattering, more like gentle observations of loveliness? Hey?
For example, I’ve got a new story in the latest edition of The New Quarterly! (Not-Humble-Brag # 2)
The story is from an auto-fiction collection I’ve been working on steadily for a rather long time, and which makes me happy every time I dip into it, to revise, edit, polish, or write a brand-new story. On Monday evening, when I was in my office marking madly, my eldest daughter came rushing in. She was glowing. She’d just read the story in TNQ — “16th Century Girl” — and she’d loved it. She said, You should just do this, Mom. You should just write. She said she’d been thinking about writers who just wrote regardless of success during their lives, just wrote anyway, no matter what, and that could be me, as she saw it. You’re such a good writer, Mom, she said.
That night, I woke in the middle of the night and wondered whether I could “just write.” Would it satisfy me? What sacrifices would be involved?
Last night, I again woke in the middle of the night. This time, I asked myself: What is your ideal career path? Who is your role model?
I remembered that for a very long time, my ideal was Alice Munro. A mother and grandmother, devoted to the short story, who dabbled in other money-earning ventures, such as a bookstore she owned with her first husband, and teaching creative writing for a year or so early in her career; but mostly, who simply sat at her table, stared out the window, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Brilliantly. When I appeared at a literary festival named in her honour, I was told that she was known as a quiet, dedicated volunteer, serving pie at community functions to people who had no idea who she was, even if they’d come to the small town hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Even before her retirement a few years ago, she rarely engaged in readings or public appearances. Add the Nobel Prize on top of that, and could there be a more romantic ideal?
Next, I thought of Grace Paley, the American short story writer, teacher and activist. Here’s what Ann Patchett writes about Grace Paley, with whom Patchett studied in university: “Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story. Grace turned out a slender but vital body of work during her life. She kept her editors waiting longer than her students. She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person.” (from “The Getaway Car,” an essay in Patchett’s This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage.)
In my mind, Alice Munro and Grace Paley don’t represent competing versions of “how to be a writer”; for both women, being a writer was not about performing as a writer, it was about doing what needed to be done. There are different ways to do this.
If I were an academic, I would keep very close track of every publication, conference, appearance, event, workshop, review, panel, and award. I discovered this lack in my own accounting last fall when a colleague and I were applying for an academic grant (a SSHRC). Creating a somewhat comprehensive CV involved picking through old calendars, emails, and boxes of clippings. The exercise was instructive, and weirdly buoying. Look at all these things you’ve done, woman! (Not-Humble-Brag # 3)
But there’s a reason I haven’t kept track of these things very well.
As a writer, what I’ve done is not as important as what I’m going to be doing. What matters is what I’m making, not what I’ve made. (I realize that’s not completely accurate; past publishing history opens doors unavailable to many, which is a privilege and not to be minimized.) But there is no tenure. No security.
To be a mid-career, mid-level literary writer is … well, it’s a form of invisibility, to be perfectly frank. It takes fortitude. It takes devotion to an idea of oneself, an aspirational self, and it takes devotion to a singular cause, which is craft. Like Grace Paley, I don’t (can’t) compartmentalize my writing from my life. And yet my life ranges rather widely and wildly. It sprawls. My attention is divided. My loves are many. If I were to “just write,” as my daughter says, what would that mean? What path am I carving, in this career my CV claims I’m building?
We were awarded the grant, by the way. (Not-Humble-Brag # 4)
Now, to spend the rest of the afternoon, this gift of unexpectedly free mid-week calm, “just writing.”
FIRE is my word of the year, and its many meanings are very present with me at present. On my run this morning, I thought about how a fire can be an emergency, how it can burn down a house, or raze a forest. Going through fire is a metaphor for suffering and surviving, for being tempered by a painful experience. But after a fire, the soil is enriched by ash and carbon, and new life begins to grow.
Like fire that is an emergency, loss changes the landscape. Losing Marg was like going through fire. Of course, it was also like many other things, too, because Marg was extremely generous in her dying, and did everything possible to show her love and care for us, despite how sick she was. She had clarity about what was happening, and her wisdom gave us clarity, too. The fire tempered her, and it tempered us, too.
After loss comes grief. Sometimes grief comes even before loss — as we see loss coming toward us on the horizon. Grief isn’t predictable. It doesn’t follow a set timeline. At different points this spring, I recognized that grief was my companion, and that it was helping me to set my course.
Immediately after Marg’s death, I felt like a sleepwalker, numb, too tired to think, but slowly and steadily I drifted toward a different phase of being in the world — of being in the world. I began to meditate outside in our back yard. I let myself rest. I let myself not do next to nothing; listen, pay attention, breathe. Instinctively, I gave myself space. And with space, with breath, with oxygen to feed it, my interior fire began to flicker to life again. It was in that burnt out quiet space, in the aftermath and ash, that new shoots of green began to grow. I thought about (think about) Marg all the time. She was and is present in my mind, in my decision-making. Her clarity guides me, and her willingness in life to step forward, to be responsible, to take charge and to lead.
Because fire has another meaning, too — fire as passion, as heat and light and desire. There are times when I live without noticing how I’m feeling, numbed by routine and responsibility and the relentless obligations of being a mother to four children, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer. These are times when I’m dull, ticking boxes, struggling to keep my weak flame lit. And then there are times when I’m on fire! I’m paying attention — my attentiveness becomes acute, and I can see clearly what matters and what doesn’t matter.
From a place of quiet attention, comes clarity.
I have been tempered by fire, and my sense of purpose is strengthened. This I know: to feed my spirit, to remain grounded and whole, I must live creatively. Living creatively means improvising, sometimes; it means pursuing work that may not have a financial value; it means making space for others to play too. Since Marg’s death, I’ve found myself making choices from a place that feels powerful and certain. I ask: what matters to me, and am I acting on what matters to me? Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at church because when I saw the call for volunteers, instead of questioning the impulse, wondering whether I had the authority to speak, or the time to prepare, or the courage to stand up, I just said yes: this matters to me, and I will do it.
Another example: This spring, as I heard about protests in Nicaragua, as the situation became ever more troubling and desperate, as protestors were being killed, I wondered: Why isn’t this news being covered in the Canadian media? What can our government do to help the situation? And then I asked: Is there anything I can do? Yes! I could use my resources, skills, and contacts to write an opinion piece appealing to the Canadian government and getting this news before the public, at least to a small degree — I pitched the idea to an editor at the Globe and Mail, and wrote the piece while sitting in a tent on a rainy afternoon last weekend. I consulted with Nicaraguan contacts to ensure my facts were accurate. I sought feedback. And the piece was published in today’s Opinion section of the Globe. It’s a small act, but it’s something.
I’ve discovered something powerful about acting on what matters to me: It gives me fuel for the fire, energy to do more.
There are so many small ways to be whole, to feel whole. I don’t seek a work-life balance, because my work and life are utterly intertwined. I’m not interested in the concept of balance. I’m interested in recognizing which fires need to be fed, and which should be smothered. That’s a different kind of balance. It means asking: what do I have control over and what do I need to let go of?
A fire can burn out of control. Some emergencies cannot be prevented or stopped, can only be endured, withstood, survived, contained. But there are many smaller fires: a candle, a campfire, the flame inside a wood stove. These fires draw us, warm us, soothe us, invite community. The constantly changing shape of the flame is meditative and centring. We gather with others around the light and heat.
I hope to have more news to share in the weeks to come. More irons in the fire. More heat, more light. Meanwhile, more summer.
Yesterday, at piano lessons, I wrote out some plans in an attempt to frame my goals in terms that were clear and measurable.
The template I followed was to name my identity or ROLE (or the identity or role that I wanted to claim), name GOALS for myself within that role, and name STRATEGIES or practical tasks I could do to achieve that goal, or some parts of that goal. The final piece of the puzzle was to BUILD ACCOUNTABILITY into my goals—in other words, involve others.
And I recognized that accountability is where the concept, and shape, of writing communities takes on real life and value.
This exercise helped me understand that my starting place should be with a role and goals; that’s the only way I’ll be able to understand what a writing community, and accountability, means to me, or what kinds of community feed and sustain the goals I’m setting for myself.
Here’s how the exercise looked on the page, roughly speaking.
For role, I started with WRITER.
I named two goals: PUBLISH NEW BOOK + PUBLISH SHORT STORIES/ESSAYS IN (LITERARY) MAGAZINES
Then I named strategies for approaching each.
PUBLISH NEW BOOK: Find publisher for The Swimmer (new novel manuscript); rewrite/edit Francie (novel manuscript in progress); research toward new manuscript; write new manuscript (novel; as yet undefined)
PUBLISH SHORT STORIES/ESSAYS: Contact editors; send out stories; polish stories; maintain a spreadsheet to track submissions; write new stories and essays; apply for grants or writer-in-residence positions
I noticed that there were two distinct categories within each larger goal: 1. strategies for getting published and 2. strategies for writing new work
Ergo, a third goal: WRITE NEW WORK.
And, my strategies for the goal.
WRITE NEW WORK: write on campus (i.e. free from distraction); contact editors (pitch story ideas); write with friends.
What surprised and pleased me about this analysis is the level of accountability (aka writing communities) already built into existing strategies. (Maybe you would find the same?!) For example, built into “find a publisher” is accountability: my agent is involved in this process. I’m not tackling it alone. However, I’ve got little/no accountability built into rewrite/edit my work-in-progress. This is of my own doing: I’m extremely private and superstitious about work in progress. The closest I’ve come to building accountability into this stage is to write/rewrite in parallel with a friend; Kevin is also my first reader on all manuscripts, but he’s not an editor, and besides, our marriage depends on him NOT offering editorial advice on my rough drafts. So here is a gap where I can ask: do I need more accountability at this stage in the process? And my honest answer is: I don’t know. I’ve handled this stage on my own FOREVER, and with measurable success.
But I’m open to considering a change.
I would be even more open, in fact, to seeking earlier editorial feedback on the short stories and essays I’ve been writing. This could be a wise step to add before submitting to magazines. Food for thought.
To return to the goal of writing new work, I wonder, at present, what does “writing with friends” look like? What’s the picture it makes in my mind? Perhaps it means what I’m already doing: Parallel writing at a friend’s kitchen table. Perhaps it means another workshop with Lynda Barry (though not this summer, sadly). I also think it means writing along with my students in class. However, given my current daily commitments, I don’t think it means organizing or leading writing workshops or a larger writing group … but perhaps it will mean that someday.
If you feel inspired or intrigued, I hope you’ll give this exercise this a whirl! Name your role, your goals, your strategies, and the ways in which you plan to build in accountability. How will you measure success?
I will measure success in BIG tangible goals, but also in TINY steps along the way: every time I write something new, including this post, I’ve met a goal. I’ve dropped a pebble on the path. Do cartoons count? YES! Private journal rants? YES! Letters to the editor? PROBABLY, HEY WHY NOT!
Yesterday, I also named and analyzed two other roles: TEACHER and FRIEND/FAMILY MEMBER. I won’t go into detail here. But we all have more than one role, so it’s worth considering how these roles overlap and interplay, and limit or feed each other.
Naming your ROLE will change how you frame your approach. How you see yourself is key, it’s critical, it’s the MOST IMPORTANT PART of this whole exercise. It’s also worth remembering that this isn’t a one-time assessment, but needs to be examined and altered as we continue to grow and change, as new roles are thrust on us, often out of our control, or new circumstances bring loss. Personally, I loved doing this exercise. Maybe you will find it clarifying too?
I’ve got a new essay on mentorship up at TNQ, the local award-winning literary magazine that has accompanied me throughout my career: you’ll find all of the plot points in the essay, including publication, rejection and cause for hope. I hope you’ll read it.
Waterloo friends, the Waterloo Public Library is helping me throw a launch party for my new picture book, Jammie Day! When: Saturday, Nov. 25 (that’s tomorrow), at the main branch of the WPL, from 2:30 – 4. Books will be available for purchase. Wearing your jammies is optional, but welcome (kids in jammies will receive a small prize; not sure whether this applies to adults, too …). I’ll be reading from the book and there will be music, crafts and a scavenger hunt.
For more info, click the link.
(Will I, or won’t I, be wearing jammies, too?)
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