snow on the roof, yesterday
New experience #1: I marked my first assignments this past week. My goal is to reward effort and engagement, as well as skill and effect, and I erred on the side of generous, which is probably a rookie mistake. I have my students handing in a finished piece along with two drafts and discussion of the editing/writing process, with comments supporting their revisions. The projects that showed greatest improvement between drafts were without exception those critiqued by friends or peers. I thought that was interesting, and shows the importance of sharing work, and of editors, even if your editor is your roommate. Even if you disagree, another perspective gives you something to argue against, and more often than not provides insight into weaknessess that are impossible for the writer to see in a time-crunched situation. I explained that I’m very private with early drafts (which are terrible, let’s be honest), and I set my work aside for a month or even longer, and then return with fresh eyes; but my students don’t have the luxury of time. I have a system of trust worked out: my first reader is always Kevin, who has to say (mainly) nice things, and of course the book never comes near publication without having been first seen and commented on by my agent (who is my second reader), and by professional editors, including copy editors and proofreaders. That’s a lot of eyeballs! And I rely on them to lift my work.
Lately I’ve been happily re-reading favourite books to find stories to share with the class, partly to add variety to the evening (I read passages outloud), and partly to demonstrate the different ways writers successfully do what they do — particularly in terms of technical considerations. Last night, I read the opening to Eden Robinson’s “Traplines,” what has very flat, stark delivery and description, with a rare punch of a metaphor to shock the system: the reader is tipped immediately into the action. I wanted to show them that, too. Then I read the opening to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?,” which begins with a long section describing furniture, zero dialogue, no flash, yet is highly suspenseful. How does he manage it? The furniture is outside on a man’s front lawn and driveway, set up like it would be inside the house, with everything plugged in, and it’s clearly no garage sale. Why? Wouldn’t you like to know? Again, even though it’s done with seemingly straightforward description, the story tips the reader immediately into the middle of something.
dog crate as end table, in living-room
I find myself talking about plot, especially in stories, as something that can be found most naturally through setting and character, through relationships, through characters’ reactions to situations; suspense is created by partial telling, by those bread crumbs dropped on a trail. Too little, and the reader is confused; too much, and the reader is bored. It’s a balancing act. A student asked me to provide a rubric for story-writing, but I can’t. You can’t go down a checklist and write the perfect story. (Besides, forget perfection!) I have the feeling I might not be a great creative writing teacher, in all honesty, because my thoughts on the subject tend toward broad and vague rather than prescriptive, but my goals, as the course has progressed, have changed slightly: I want them to get time to write, in class, because writing is all about practice, and I want them to hear/read good writing.
Yesterday, before class, I read a fascinating essay on Raymond Carver’s relationship with his first major editor, whose name was Lish (I’ve forgotten his first name). Lish, a writer himself, claimed to have rewritten the early Carver stories so thoroughly that he felt he should have been considered a collaborator or even co-author rather than an editor. The essayist, who reviewed archived materials, had to agree that Lish’s fingerprints were all over Carver’s first two collections, which were lauded for their minimalist style. Carver’s style changed in his later collections; not coincidentally, he’d distanced himself from Lish at that point. The essayist felt that Lish’s changes (which included actually writing new endings, and removing up to 70% of the original text) strengthened Carver’s work — at least, his early work.
At the end of the essay, for comparison, were two Carver stories: the same story, but very different, and published at different times. The first version (“The Bath”) is striking for its brusque almost brutal style: it’s short, clipped, and has an ambiguous ending. The second version (“A Small, Good Thing”) is more than twice as long, and striking for its flirtation with sentimentality that allows it an ending of enormous emotional power. Guess which one I liked better? Yet it can’t be denied that Lish’s influence took Carver from obscurity and brought him to a level of fame and success — and confidence — that allowed Carver to drop Lish and head off in his own direction.
Long tangent. It’s kind of a puzzle, isn’t it. What would I do if a student handed in a finished story that had been essentially rewritten by another student? Yikes! Don’t do that, students! That’s not the kind of editing I’m advocating. And yet, Carver’s stories exist and I’ve loved them ever since I started reading them: does it matter how they came to be? I’m not sure, actually. I found myself wondering if it was Lish I was reading rather than Carver as I read “Why Don’t You Dance?” to the class last night, and did Carver have a different version somewhere else that maybe I would have liked better (since I rather like stories that flirt with the sentimental).
New experience # 2: I spent Tuesday evening marking in my office on campus. When I checked my mailbox, look what I found: actual mail! My friend Nath sent me a postcard from England, where she’s living this year. I was touched. And excited. And I must admit that I approached my mailbox with slightly more expectation before yesterday’s class, but found it once again in its natural state. As an aside, I’m really liking my office. It’s a weirdly comforting place to come to. I’m essentially unplugged there, and undisturbed by technology. It has no personality except for that fabulously awful brown easy chair, which I can’t look at without thinking “bacteria,” but I will miss it when the term ends.
Forgive the giddiness. There’s a whole boatload of giddy-making news today.
Let’s start with Alice Munro. You’ve already heard, of course, but she earns top billing, because NOBEL PRIZE! Awarded today to a woman from a small town in Ontario who has spent her career here in Canada quietly writing short stories. She rarely makes public appearances. She is the opposite of someone who seeks the spotlight. And yet the light seeks her out. I’ve seen her read and speak twice, rare occasions that remain vivid in my memory. A year ago, I was asked by the National Post’s books editor to review her last book, Dear Life, and I accepted, in fear and trembling and excitement, because it seemed the opportunity of a lifetime: to write a tribute (hardly a review) to an author whose work I’ve admired, loved, and read and re-read for comfort and pleasure for the better part of my life. (Who Do You Think You Are? whispered to me as I worked on the piece, and whispers to me now as I re-post it, but there it is. I’m a fan. If Alice Munro were a hockey team, I would know all the stats.)
Now, I’m going to share some other news in entirely un-Munrovian fashion (first of all, by sharing it) with a tweet I saw this morning:
“@HouseofAnansi at #fbf13 hit it out of the park w / 3 sales of @carrieasnyder new bk #GirlRunner in Holland, France & Italy on same day. Wow!”
To interpret for you: House of Anansi is my Canadian publisher, currently attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, and, yes, they’ve sold the rights to Girl Runner in three more territories: more translations! Wow, indeed. My family is looking forward to celebratory meals of Italian, Dutch, and French specialities. Suggestions welcome. Spaghetti, gouda, and baguette with stinky cheese? (I said no to Albus’s request for pizza, unless it’s a non-north-Americanized version.) We’re going to start preparing and eating these meals at home, however.
And now, back to work. Revisions, revisions, and prepping for class tonight where I’ll be talking about … revisions!
I present to you the chaos in which we are currently living. We are having the house re-treated for bed bugs this coming week, which means moving all of the furniture away from the walls, so Kevin decided to finish the painting project in the living-room. Praise be! I’d resigned myself to the likelihood that we’d be looking at empty walls blotted with holes pretty much indefinitely. And now we’ll enjoy a freshly brightened space instead.
As it is, it feels like we’re living with uncertainty pretty much indefinitely.
this morning, in process, two walls done
I keep getting messages from friends concerned about my ability to take it easy and rest. I would like to assure you that this is not actually a problem. In fact, I’m finding it alarmingly easy to rest, for the simple reason that my head hurts when I don’t. I can see why you’d think it hard for me, given the pace at which I prefer to live my life, but what’s perhaps more distressing is how easy it is for me to shut down, lie down, close my eyes, and not do anything at all. The only problem, I suppose, is of identity. I prefer the Carrie who operates at high efficiency and can be relied on to squeeze the marrow out of her days and hours. The-meditational-Carrie-on-the-couch-whose-head-hurts-when-faced-with-effortful-tasks seems a foreigner, a stranger, from whom I may learn something, someday, but whose presence is, it must be said, a bit of a drag. It reminds me of the six weeks, or so, post-partum when everything would feel off-kilter and I would long for life to return to normal; and eventually, it did, or rather to a new normal. I imagine, at some small distance from now, writing an essay reflecting on this slightly bizarre time in my life.
A friend on FB recently posted a status that went roughly like this: “I’m thinking of all those times when I thought ‘I’m barely holding on.’ Perhaps it’s those moments that are conspiring to help me let go.”
I like that. The positives of this experience seem to relate to letting go. Maybe that’s why I’ve been playing the piano more often, and singing: my head likes it, and I feel very free as my fingers and voice improvise and play with rhythm and melody. I’m shifting plans to make life easier, too. On Friday, I realized that there was no way I could drive myself to and from Toronto for a reading; so Kevin drove me, and we got to spend an unexpected evening together. Hardest of all is not limiting physical activities, but cognitive ones, as I’m healing. This includes limiting writing time, reading time, and time conversing with friends, all of which I find surprisingly taxing. I trust that my friendships and books will wait for my return; my anxiety circles instead around a fear that I won’t be able to write with clarity and depth, given this injury seems to affect most strongly my ability to focus for long periods of time: that’s why I’m continuing to blog. It gives me hope.
Here’s how Kevin and I are living right now: like grad students. It’s like we’re camping inside of our ordinary lives. It changes the perspective. There is comfort in simplicity, in a bed on the floor and not much more, the entire family crowding in on a Saturday morning to laugh and talk and snuggle.
What happens when we’re shaken up? What happens when we can’t be our best selves? What happens when we’re asked to live in flux? What happens when we let go of all that we can’t control?
click on photos to see in full
I haven’t been getting enough sleep and it may be due to my late-night reading material. I just finished Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which should not be dismissed merely because it has an Oprah book club sticker on it. I really loved this memoir. It was everything I hope for in a book: I was entertained, I was moved, I learned new things, I met fascinating characters, it touched me, it felt relevant to my own experience without being preachy, it expressed a deeper human truth while remaining particular and individual, and it had a compassionate moral outlook. And it was written by a woman. Hurray! I’ve been mildly troubled by my male-author-heavy recent reading trend. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading books by both men and women, but I kept waiting for the female-authored book that would speak to me with authority. And Wild did.
I won’t give a detailed plot synopsis, because you’ve probably already heard about the book or even read it yourself, but the narrator is hiking 1100 miles of wilderness trail, by herself, age 26, several years after the death of her mother, as a way to recover her life from a seriously scary downward spiral. Because I read it as an ebook, I can’t easily thumb through to find favourite bits, but I loved when this troubled spirit recognized that her efforts to get out of herself, to escape, had been not actually what she longed for. What she longed for was to get in. It was such a simple and profound way of expressing the paradox of the human mind and spirit: how the easy way out is always a trap, because it prevents us from finding what we really crave, which is a way into ourselves — and the way in is hard. And yet, it’s also not hard because it’s so right, because it lines up who we want to be with who we are, I think. Peace. Grace. Stillness.
So, two things I loved about the book. One, it was about hard physical effort. I related to that as a path to entering into one’s life and self. Two, the acknowledgements. I read the whole book with pleasure and ease, and it almost came as a shock to see the author thanking mentors, grant-giving institutions, writers’ festivals, and writing retreat centres. Right! I thought. This effortless-seeming book was written by a writer. Obvious, I know. But it gave me a feeling of kinship to recognize the work behind the scenes, to remember that every wonderful piece of writing began as an idea, and was supported by an invisible web, and brought to being by the same hard yet right process of steady work. That it didn’t just emerge whole. Cheryl Strayed wrote this book the same way she walked the trail: with help, alone, in doubt, and in hope. Sure, there are some ecstatic moments along the way, but writing a polished and complete book is kind of like walking 1100 miles of wilderness trail (or so I imagine): it’s a grind. You’re going to hate that you’re doing it some days, and think you might actually be crazy. You’ll be afraid and have to tell yourself that you’re not. You’ll be humbled by all you’re not, and also by all you are.
It’s the grind that yields.
In other news …
Most of the fallen tree is now piled in our front yard.
I spent yesterday afternoon deliberating with other members of The New Quarterly’s story jury, as we picked out a winner and runners-up for their emerging writer story contest. I learned a few things that I hope to apply in my creative writing class this fall. One is a total ban on sex scenes — I mean in their stories, not in the classroom; well, actually, I mean both, but the latter does not generally require mentioning. Only well into one’s writing career should one should attempt to write a sex scene, and even then … which reminds me, Cheryl Strayed wrote a really good sex scene. So it’s not that it can’t be done well, it’s just not a promising place to begin. Everything I type right now seems to be loaded with double-entendres. Which is probably part of the problem.
Anyway, that was yesterday, and I also zoomed all over town on my bike. My muscles are aching from lifting weights yesterday morning, and they’re still aching from a push-up extravaganza on Friday morning, not to mention the general battered and bruised feeling I carry following my evening soccer games (now on Thursdays and Sundays), and Saturday’s long run. I’m taking today off except for yoga stretches.
I scored a replay-worthy goal in Sunday’s game. It’s the goal I’ve been envisioning for months. I believing in envisioning, by the way. I believe if you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it in real life. The goal came off of a beautiful cross on a strong run up the left wing. I was on right forward, and running hard. The ball crossed ahead of our centre forward and I caught it on my right foot at the top of the box, controlled it like I knew what I was doing. The centre forward, behind me, told me I had time, take my time, and I did, somehow calmly positioning the ball and as the defender rushed me, I shot it over the goalie’s fingertips, skimming an inch under the bar, and swishing the back of the net.
I get to describe it in detail because it may never happen again. But it happened once. I could not stop grinning for about ten minutes. It was one of those magical sporting moments that keep a person coming back to a game–when it feels like the moment is unfolding separate from thought, purely on instinct, and you know in advance you’re going to do exactly the right thing. You have utter confidence in yourself, and it seems like it’s suddenly so easy. (Of course, it’s not). Everyone who’s played a sport knows what I’m talking about it. Come to think of it, it’s another example of grace.
AppleApple got a goal of her own in last night’s game. CJ and Kevin and I all came along to watch.
And now it’s back to work. The younger kids are at daycamp. Albus will be home from camp in two more sleeps. AppleApple is watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, which she read this spring. And I’m writing scenes that are kind of like candy. They are so fun to read, and to write, it’s weirding me out.
Me to him – Do you ever think: hey, maybe Carrie will be happy being a writer? I get flashes of that sometimes. I’ve been pretty happy these past few weeks working on Girl Runner, running, being with the kids.
Him – It sounds like a good life. Not sure you can cure the restless feeling.
Me – I’m oddly buoyed by this stranger writing me this kind letter urging me to keep my focus.
Him – You have to think about the amount of effort that letter took.
To the stranger who wrote me a letter: thank you.
To all readers who have read a book they love: consider writing the author a letter. We read alone, and we write alone, which is a paradox, because we read and we write to experience connection. Who knows, your letter may be a sweet spark.
hot and grumpy
Inevitably, having said I was doing a lot of training, along came a random stomach bug (food poisoning?) to lay me low early yesterday morning and now I’ve missed two planned runs. But I prioritized rest and recovery, and am feeling back to normal today, if normal includes being covered in a sheen of perspiration. We don’t have air conditioning. The upstairs thermostat reads 89 degrees (why Fahrenheit? I don’t know).
hot but less grumpy
Kevin gets to go off to his air conditioned office every day, but the rest of us are here, making do with a few fans and running low on popsicles. I’m wearing clothes I’d wear to hot yoga (see photo above), and brainstorming cool foods for supper: gazpacho and fattoush!
even the dogs are grumpy
I don’t envy AppleApple her babysitting duties
On Monday evening, I took the kids to the pool for two hours (two hours!), and discovered that CJ swims far better than I thought he could, given his general sinky-ness in swim lessons, while Fooey swims rather worse (she needs to learn the flutter kick, mainly, and become more efficient at breathing between strokes). CJ wanted to practice, but Fooey was annoyed by my instruction. It’s funny how my kids break down along these lines: Albus and Fooey are similar in many ways, while AppleApple and CJ are similar in others. The latter two accept my instruction as helpful, while the former two loathe it.
I’m more like the latter two. But I try to work with what works for each kid. So Fooey played and splashed, while CJ played and practiced and splashed, and AppleApple did laps and dolphin dives and dove to the bottom of the deep end and found $2.50 in change. When we clambered out two hours later, we were actually, wonderfully, briefly, COLD.
This morning I received a letter from a reader, through my publisher. She’d read both of my books, going so far as to track down Hair Hat, which is out of print, at U of T’s Robarts Library, and she wanted to tell me that she foresaw a bright career developing for me, if I could keep my focus.
Because I do wonder about that: are my chances for success, for a long and happy career, all wrapped up in the focus, in the drive, in the setting of high expectations? At this stage in my life, I’ve come to think the answer to that is No. There’s luck, too, and striking the geyser of zeitgeist, which is beyond unpredictable. And yet, I’ll tell you too, that I keep operating as if the answer is Yes. Because it’s what I’ve got, and I seem to have lots of it. (It being focus, drive, high expectations, etc.)
I operate with the knowledge that failure is ever-present and ever-possible, and that it can only harm me if I let it get in the way of trying. Knowing failure keeps me oddly serene, oddly comforted.
I just keep writing. Like Dory hums in Finding Nemo (yes, I’m quoting a kids’ movie): “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming,” only I hum writing instead of swimming. I’m nearly midway through my revisions of Girl Runner, or at least midway through the manuscript. I’m writing lots of new scenes and loving my main character ever so much. I think you’ll love her too. My editor said she thought readers would Google the character’s name, believing her to be real, and I almost feel that way about her too. What a strange job I have, making people up from scratch. I can’t explain why it makes the slightest bit of sense to do it.
Am I keeping my focus in order to have a bright career?
Probably not, though I’d welcome it if it landed on my doorstep. I keep my focus because I love telling stories. I love digging into the lives of others. I love having them say and feel and do things I could never say or feel or do. I love asking enormous questions. I love being allowed to wonder.
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