An update seems in order.
Yes, my midterm went well. Apparently my mama-brain still retains and regurgitates factual information upon request. I realized it had been a really really really impressively long time since I’d written an exam; in grad school, we had to endure nerve-wracking seminar presentations instead. All said, it was doable. Best of all, my cold vapours seemed to lift as I entered the classroom, and by the time Kevin had picked me up and driven us across town to the Art Bar, I felt very nearly in the pink of health. It had been a really really really long time since I’d read, too. Though initially nervous, and somewhat dry of mouth, I reminded myself (as ever) to enjoy the moment, and take confidence in the words. The words will lead you home. Or something like that. Tough crowd, reading to a roomful of friends.
I never remember to have photos taken at readings, which is why CJ appears above, not me. He loves to climb a stool and hack away at the computer keyboard, which is probably ill-advised for its long-term health. Apple-Apple has also been spending great swathes of time at the upstairs computer, working on a Quidditch story. She has amazing focus and patience, and reminds me of myself, the way she can hole up inside her imaginary worlds and vanish. I perform vanishing acts regularly, much to the dismay of my family. It is maddening, I can see that. But there’s no other way to write something out. Writing takes me out of life; but it takes me deeper inside of it, too.
Alice Munro said a few things that struck me to the core: one, was that she doesn’t consider herself a very brave person, and though she might be a brave writer, it was very difficult to come back from that writing world and have to deal with the consequences of what she’d written. She admitted that she’d caused pain, not purposely, of course; and one could infer that it pained her greatly to have caused pain. That’s a part of the writing life people don’t much talk about. It’s damned true. She also said that outside of her daily chores, she really just writes. It’s all she does, all she wants to do. That gave me pause. Because it’s not all that I want to do. I have such a variety of interests, my energies run in different directions, and I love that part of myself that is physically engaged with the world; maybe I will not be a writer-writer after all. I’ll just be a happy dabbler in the great sea of literature. Just let it be that what I write is true. Both Alice Munro and Diana Athill spoke at some length about how the only thing that really matters, when writing, is to get at the heart of the matter, that in holding back, hesitating, being afraid, unwilling to go to the core, being anything other than totally honest … well, what you write will ring false. Which returns me to Alice Munro’s comment that she’s not a brave person: yes, she is. She’s been brave enough to write truthfully and unselfconsciously, and brave enough to publish it, no matter the consequences. I salute her. (And I can’t wait to read Diana Athill’s memoirs. I’m certain she’s a brave writer, too).
Here’s where Kevin and I were last night: in Toronto, listening to Alice Munro and Diana Athill talk about their writing lives. Amazing! Once-in-a-lifetime. Anansi Press has posted a link to the podcast (click on the link above to find it all).
And here’s where I’ll be tonight
: in Kitchener, reading from a new story at the Art Bar for the launch of this fall’s New Quarterly (still haven’t held the finished product in my hands; looking forward to that).
Where I’ll be immediately before that doesn’t get a link. Suffice it to say, I’m just required to show up with a brainful of knowledge and a working pen.
And, finally, here’s where I am right now: in bed, clad in pjs and bathrobe, sipping garlic-lemon-ginger tea (apologies to anyone who will be in my vicinity at any point in the near future), fighting a cold. Thankfully, my mother-in-law is visiting and has been wrangling children all morning. We’re all happy it’s finally naptime. (And if you’ve never seen me clad in pjs and bathrobe, be grateful. Be very very grateful. No illustrations needed.)
My photos are loaded onto a different computer. I may add some in later, but will not let lack of illustration get in the way of a small update. With a life packed perhaps slightly too full, there seems no time to blog. And I miss it. It’s like journaling, which was something I used to do every day, by hand (unfortunately–of perhaps fortunately, depending on one’s perspective–those journals are essentially illegible, written in code, due to my “handwriting” which is a cross between cursive and print–an unsuccessful, take-it-behind-the-barn-and-shoot-it cross. Except I can’t because it’s all I’ve got).
Darn. Tangents always seem to happen in Blogland.
Here are some of the things currently filling my days …
Books: I’m writing a review for a former colleague at the Post, who is now publishing a magazine called Lake Simcoe Living; we’re rounding up some books to recommend for holiday giving and reading, and as such, I got to thumb through catalogues (not literally, because everything’s online now), make a shortlist, consult with her, then call publishers for review copies, which was something I used to do almost daily, but haven’t for years. Of course, all the publicists I used to talk to have moved on. But publicists are friendly; it’s their job. I’ve got two beautiful books already sitting at my elbow, waiting to be read and reviewed (that’s on my to-do list for this morning)–one of them I’m especially excited about: it’s called Earth to Table: Seasonal Recipes from an Organic Farm, by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann. The photos are gorgeous and make me want to fondle vegetables, and then cook them.
Mark your calendars: I will be reading at the launch of The New Quarterly’s fall issue on October 22. That’s a Thursday. Which is the same evening that I also happen to have my first midterm. Seriously. Did I mention that I’m taking a women studies class? The professor thinks I’ll be finished in plenty of time. I’m excited about this class because I’m focussing my major paper on midwifery and doula’ing, and have already spoken to her about it. Yes, I’m a keener. Why the heck else would I be taking a class, if not to squeeze all potential learning out of it?
October 22, Art Bar, which is in the Centre in the Square, in Kitchener. I’ll be reading around 8:45pm, but doors open much earlier. Details to follow.
Kevin’s in Toronto running a slate of training classes, and this morning was HAIRY. I was a chicken with its head chopped off. Picture a cartoon Carrie suspended mid-air with legs and arms stretching in four different directions. And her head popping off. But we made it. And I enjoyed a brisk jog too. Which reminds me that I meant to blog about exercise. Am I fitting it into my life? I felt in better shape this summer with all the family biking we were doing. But I do bike to and from campus once a week, at a racing pace (why am I late, no matter where I’m going?). Biking after dark sure gets the heart pumping. I am covered with flashing red lights, but still feel only an invisible obstacle away from mangling myself. I also run home from school a couple of mornings a week. And I walk to school every day to pick up the kids (briskly on the way there, as, yes, I’ve started leaving later and later, because, really, why be early, when you can enjoy the adrenalin rush of not being sure you’ll quite make it in time?).
Does a joking tone translate in Blogland?
Stop typing. Stop typing, now. Time to work!
I’m writing again. And that means that most spare scraps of the day are poured into that work … and not into, say, doing the dishes, prepping supper, photographing my adorable children, or blogging. Gee, I still dislike that term. But can’t think of a better one.
Saturday, so we arose late, hoping CJ would sleep in (he did, a bit, following a just-before-seven nurse), and that the other children would go downstairs and play together (they did), and that they would FEED themselves. They didn’t. Inevitably, hunger arrived, wasn’t addressed, and led to an argument between Fooey (age four) and Albus (age eight). Over Duplo. Apple-Apple, meantime, has been in the position pictured above since waking this morning, save for a brief breakfast out of bed. It is now almost eleven. She’s reading the Harry Potter series at a rate of about a book per week, and is already on book three. Surely there is poetic justice in me having a daughter who cannot remove herself from a book–I get to understand first-hand how difficult that can be to watch. I fight the urge to jump up and down waving my arms while telling her: look at this wonderful world; don’t you want to go play road hockey with your brother?; wouldn’t you like to chat or something? But she’s lost in this other place. She doesn’t even blink.
“When you’re reading, it’s like you’re almost in another world, isn’t it, Mom? It’s almost like you’re a character in the book. And then when you close the book, the world disappears.”
Yup, like magic. I get it. I hope I’ll get there again, myself. I read all day long, but not in the same way. I skim the newspaper, dash through emails, scan other people’s blogs, troll through recipe books, I read aloud to the kids, process the endless stream of info that arrives in backpacks from school, lie in bed and savour a chapter or two in a personally chosen book before sleep arrives. Much of life revolves around text. Reading isn’t dead. But falling so deeply inside a book … that feels beyond my capacity to manage right now. There isn’t enough room, enough space in the day.
This morning began like most Saturday mornings. I didn’t get downstairs till almost 10, though I’d been up for several hours. I changed the sheets on four out of five beds (couldn’t budge Apple-Apple), put away bales of laundry, tidied. Experience tells me that, when working on a project, it is unwise to move to another section of the house, even for a brief errand, because another project/child/need will suck me in. Last night, Kevin and I spent about two hours, post-supper and post-dishwashing PUTTING AWAY TOYS. We worked in tandem, sorting, organizing, throwing away, moving methodically through drawers and bins and across swathes of strewn carpet. Maybe we have too many toys. Or too many toys with tiny bits. Because we have places to put everything; that’s not the problem. It’s just that everything seems to migrate, up and down, piled into baby buggies and baskets, dumped and dragged, carted and reorganized for the sake of some marvelous imaginary game that it would seem cruel and foolish not to allow. Their methods of cleaning up, though sometimes quite enthusiastically practiced, don’t match up with mine. Albus, for example, would happily organize his room according to his own ideas, and it would look “perfect” to him: there would be multiple piles stacked on dresser tops and in the middle of the floor; there would be a forest of containers, each with three or four items rattling about within. “But I like it this way, Mom!”
Made it downstairs. Have now breakfasted and self-caffeinated. Laundry is on the list, as is vacuuming. Unless I get called to doula at a birth! My friend is due–was due–this Thursday past. Every time the phone rings, Kevin looks at me and I look at him–is this it?
Do any of you have Sigg water bottles? If so, the company is doing a voluntary recall due to tests that showed their old liners were leaching a nasty chemical. This week, we replaced a family’s worth of rather battered bottles for pretty new ones, which have a different liner. Which will leach heaven knows what, but hey. Better than disposable. Blue Skies Yoga and Eco-Store
will exchange your bottles, no questions asked. That’s Apple-Apple’s brand-new ladybug bottle behind her in bed. Always hydrate while reading.
I’ve been reading memoirs.
First, I re-read an old favourite: James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, which is not, strictly speaking, a memoir, but a fictionalized account of the author’s experiences as a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales before World War Two. I’ve loved Herriot’s books since childhood; they’re funny, poignant, a bit sentimental, and the writing is what I’d call hard-working. It does the job. Sometimes that’s really all that’s required, and anything more would seem out of place.
Next, I read The Way of a Boy, by Ernest Hillen, a memoir about the three years he spent as a child in a Japanese work camp in Dutch Indonesia, during World War Two. This is an entirely and remarkably unsentimental memoir; it seems like the author re-entered his boy self in order to tell this very pure and moving story. Inherent in his telling is complete trust in the reader. I liked this book a great deal. There were many loose threads, as the boy and his brother and mother were moved from camp to camp, losing contact along the way with many of the characters, and there was no attempt to tie up these threads; true to life. The portrayal of the author’s mother was humbling: she was unselfish, stoical, expressed and seemed to feel no pity for herself and their situation. She was also strong, brave, loving, and most impressively, eschewed martyrdom–rather than giving her share of food to her children, as other mothers did, she unapologetically ate it in order to stay strong for her family; she stayed up late reading, if books and light were available; and on occasion, she swore like a sailor. Ernest Hillen came to Canada after his family was released from the camps (he was then about ten or eleven), and grew up to work as an editor. According to the foreword, by Charlotte Gray, he never spoke of his experiences in the camps or even thought much about them until he began work on the memoir, some forty years later. Remarkable is the detail he was able to bring to the surface.
Finally, I’m thoroughly enjoying another memoir recommended to me by a friend: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, written by Alexandra Fuller, who grew up in Africa as the daughter of white African farmers. This story is skillfully told within a non-linear frame, and is so far extremely entertaining. The character of the mother is (again) drawn with particular brilliance (what is it about us mothers??), though in this case much less flatteringly.
All of this is “research.” Pleasant, easy research, I must add. Next week marks the return to some regular writing hours. My sense is that I’m going to dive into my own attempt at memoir; with a couple of caveats. Should the work seem like a slog, should it not come naturally, I’m not going to push it. And I really only have to write a chapter or two and an outline before running it by my agent, who will take it further, if that seems the right direction.
Those stories, on the same subject, still feel very present and vital. There may even be more of them yet to write.
An acquaintance who reads this blog emailed to remind me of the value of fiction (that wasn’t necessarily what she was trying to do, but that’s where I went with her thoughts): that as human beings we need–we long for–the purpose and order created by the artistic act of reimagining the human experience. Fiction isn’t made-up life, it’s life re-made.
What’s memoir? I’m not sure I know. But at this point, it feels possible to frame this story I’d like to tell in two vastly different ways. I’m going to try, anyway.
For those of you interested in reading a couple of the aforementioned stories, I will let you know when they become available in the fall edition of The New Quarterly.
Kids who make their own lunch. And arrange it on a table they’ve set up themselves.Children who read. A baby who still nurses from time to time.
Tiny front-yard gardens that produce actual tomatoes to be picked by girls still wearing pajamas.
The smell of a lime being sliced open, which makes me think we should up and move down south to a country where these would be locally grown (along with mangoes and avocadoes).