Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life. That is the title of a book of essays by Yiyun Li, a Chinese-American writer whose stories I’ve admired for years, and I bought this book without knowing much about it, other than the title made me want to know more. (She says it’s taken from an entry in one of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. “I cried when I read the line,” Li writes. “What a long way it is from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance…”)
This turned out to be a book about many things, most significantly about reading other books, and about surviving, continuing to be alive on this earth. The book is written as if to a friend, but in the end, it seems the friend is Yiyun Li herself, trying to write to herself, as she figures out how to stay alive in the years following a long descent into severe depression and hospitalization and release. It was actually exactly what I needed and wanted to read, though I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen it, had I known what I was choosing; a book sometimes chooses us rather than the other way around. I’ve read it slowly, over this fall, marking pages with insights for keeping, and that is what this post will be about: insights from this book, to keep and to wonder about. Li writes in English, a language she learned as an adult, which she calls her private language. She originally studied to be a scientist (immunologist), and in fact came to the United States to further her studies. When she decided to quit science to become a writer, a friend’s husband asked: “Why do you want to make your life difficult?”
I’ve had a thought that I would like to write a story on the theme of each of these quotes; or at least a scene. Each one brings into my mind a picture or feeling, or both, and makes me yearn to respond, through fiction. Why do you want to make your life difficult? The question could be asked in so many contexts and would always create an interesting and troubling problem, without an obvious solution. The seed of a story, I think.
“I have had a troublesome relationship with time. The past I cannot trust because it could be tainted by my memory. The future is hypothetical and should be treated with caution. The present—what is the present but a constant test: in this muddled in-between one struggles to understand what about oneself has to be changed, what accepted, what preserved.”
Yiyun Li thinks about time a lot, and truth be told, I was drawn to this thought because the character in the muddled in-between looks like a version of me, maybe now, maybe from the distant past.
“What I admire and respect in a dreamer: her confidence in her capacities, her insusceptibility to the frivolous, and her faith that the good and the real shall triumph and last. There is nothing selfish, dazzling, or preposterous about dreamers; in everyday life they blend in rather than stand out …
A real dreamer has a mutual trust with time.
Apart from feeling unqualified to be called a dreamer, I may also be worrying about being mistaken for one of those who call themselves dreamers but are merely ambitious. One meets them often in life, their ambitions smaller than dreams, more commonplace, in need of broadcasting and dependent on recognition from this particular time. If they cause pain to others, they have no trouble writing off those damages as the cost of their dreams. Timeliness may be one thing that separates ambitions from real dreams.”
Again, Yiyun Li’s reflection on time, here, made me stop and wonder: am I a dreamer? Or merely ambitious? Or maybe I have the potential to be both, and have been, and will be. What’s my relationship to time? Do I trust it, or fear it will betray me? This scene would have two characters, or multiple characters, perhaps entirely unaware of their own relationship to time; but the reader knows.
“The train, for reasons unknown to us, always stops between a past and a future, both making this now look as though it is nowhere. But it is this nowhereness that one has to make use of. … One has made it this far; perhaps this enough of a reason to journey on.”
Is this a sincere conclusion? Or is the writer writing to convince herself? I love the image of the stopped train; but I don’t want to think of time that way. I don’t want to think of being suspended between destinations. That makes the destinations too central, when it’s where we’ve stopped that I want to land, and be. Of course, the character might get off the train, here, in the middle of nowhere. Or they might find another way to shake themselves awake.
“Perhaps my deficiency as a scientist, a lack of ultimate purpose, is why I love writing. Precision gives me more pleasure than the end result.”
Ah, I thought, as I read this. Me too. (Though I’m not a scientist; but I do love order, precision, walking around a scene and picking up every little item in the room, acknowledging every flickering interior thought, every facial expression, collecting and organizing them into some kind of coherence, accessible for someone else to walk around and observe, too, and draw their own conclusions.)
“For as long as I can remember, my mother has spoken of me as a selfish person. If I were religious, I would kneel nightly for salvation from this sin. There is no measure to quantify selfishness: how much of oneself is devoted to others, or even which part of life is to be lived and which part given up. All my life I have failed to prove myself unselfish.”
A question from my own life, haunting, ever-present; this is so often a mother’s story, isn’t it? How to quantify selfishness? How to know how much is too much to take, or to give; or to want?
“A young person, beginning to read seriously, tends to live—infatuated, even—with one book at a time. The world offered by the book is large enough to contain all other worlds, or exclusive enough to make all other worlds retreat.”
This is how I read, even now, and it can feel overwhelming, almost unsettling, to be so far from home, so far from those who may need me to be present. Yiyun Li calls this “enchantment—or entrapment.” Yes. Both. The vanishing that is uncomfortable to the adult is utterly wonderful to the child; this story may wonder: what’s the difference between those minds and experiences?
“Solitude is noble, but fatal to an artist who has not the strength to break out of it. An artist must live the life of his own time, even if it be clamorous and impure: he must be forever giving and receiving, and giving and giving, and again receiving.” — Romain Rolland, Jean-Christophe
Here, Li pulls a quote from a favourite book, which she read over and over as a teenager (I’d never heard of it). I feel what is being said here most keenly: that we are embedded in our times, of our times, and it’s necessary to bob in their waters; ours are not clamorous right now, so much as masked, awkward with imposed estrangement, lassitude mixed with anxiety. I confess: the pandemic story is a challenge to write; what’s it mean to write about the times we’re in while we’re knee-deep in them? Is it foolish, too close to attempted journalism; maybe fiction comes from the compost, years later. Maybe we’re just gathering now.
“To write is to find a new way to see the world … The truth is, I did not know what I was supposed to see.”
What is my style, my reason for writing, what is it I’ve wanted and want to accomplish? At times, I’ve believed writers (including myself here) are dangerous, untrustworthy beings, both powerful and weak, impotent, seeking reaction, or to provoke; they don’t do much themselves. Ornamental. Admired, but kind of useless; frivolous, but essential, or else how would we remember who we were? And who we wanted to be?
“What does not make sense is what matters.”
This is most often what I write about, I suppose; maybe in hopes of making peace with it, or grasping some insight, or putting together part of the puzzle. Seeing a pattern in random shifting bits of light and shadow.
A friend (the writer William Trevor) writes to Yiyun Li: “You may be less confused than you imagined. Stories are a hope, and often they obligingly answer questions.”
She replies to her friend, but only in her imagination, much later: “We are solitary travellers, having crossed paths in the land of stories.”
“One cannot be an adept writer of one’s life; nor can one be a discerning reader of that tale. Not equipped with a novelist’s tools to create plots and maneuver pacing, to speak omnisciently or abandon an inconvenient point of view, to adjust time’s linearity and splice the less connected moments, the most interesting people among us, I often suspect, are flatter than the flattest character in a novel.”
Parse that out (“a novelist’s tools”), and you’ve got the structural ingredients for writing a good story (and she’s right, even the most interesting life, lived at life’s pace, wouldn’t make for a good story; it needs a fictional treatment. And this treatment can be a kindness, or it can be a cruelty; or maybe it is both; but I don’t know any other way in to the questions that come calling; these questions aren’t even asked in language, at least not in my mind, but in imagery, in emotion.)
Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life. Thank you for reading.
I’m sitting on Great-Aunt Alice’s tiny rocking chair, wearing wool socks and a scarf, hoodie up, half-frozen; but the window is open because it’s September! Because I need fresh air. My studio is a different space than it was just a week ago, when I still called it “my office.”
Last Friday, I spent the entire day reading my friend Emily Urquhart’s new book, The Age of Creativity, which is part-memoir, part-exploration of the idea that age does not destroy or diminish creativity, even as it may alter it in significant ways. The book is about Emily’s relationship with her father, a visual artist. I was struck by the detail that, no matter where he’s lived, her dad has an ever-present corkboard on which he pins sketches and ideas for works-in-progress; I like that it is always hung on the wall beside where he eats his meals, a sign, for Emily, that he never really stops practicing his craft.
Last Saturday, I biked across town to celebrate the launch of Emily’s book, at a delightful event in her driveway. Emily shared early scenes from the book with me and Tasneem (all of us, above, at the launch), and it was wonderfully exciting to discover how Emily had structured the book in full; equally fascinating to discover — what was left out of the final version. Proof that letting go of material is as important as managing smooth transitions (note: these two elements may be the most challenging of any revision; and Emily has accomplished both brilliantly).
What’s the difference between an office and a studio?
When I decided on a whim last weekend to buy some paint and make myself a yellow door, I wanted to create a space that invited me in; the opposite of “going to work.” My studio, I hope, will be welcoming, rich with changing visual inspiration, with space to stretch and do yoga, and to spread out and draw with crayons, too; but also, organized, tidy, holding just the essentials (as defined by me!). On Saturday, I cleaned out files and drawers. I said goodbye to some projects that have aged past their time; now stored on shelves in the attic. And on Sunday, I reunited with my younger self, the self who moved often, and who always claimed her new space with a few coats of fresh paint. I painted for hours, finding the joy in the task, letting my inner-perfectionist take over; while I worked, I listened to 1619, an essential podcast from The New York Times that centres slavery at the violent heart of American history.
The new yellow door belongs to a studio.
So does the corkboard wall, the final piece to the puzzle, installed just last night by Kevin, who also researched it for me, and found a Canadian company that makes and sells all things cork. As you can see, I haven’t been brave enough to fill it with much, yet. But I hope to, and hope, too, that I will be brave enough to remove sketches and ideas when they’ve grown past their time.
Knowing what to remove, what to take down, what to edit out is as essential to completion as invention itself.
Completion is not something I’ve gotten a handle on, recently (or even in the last number of years). I’ve been making, making, making new things, raw and muddled and messy. Now to learn (re-learn) how to finish projects, too.
Welcome to my studio.
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.)