We’ve got flocks of crows in the neighbourhood. Occasionally, they choose the trees in our yard and gather in the bare branches. Even when they are silent, their wings rustle heavily, a sensation of suspended watchfulness. It’s hard not to think of them as being a sign. Though of what? I often hear them calling loudly in the early morning. On a less poetical note, their poop is everywhere.
This early morning my alarm went off, and I thought, no, I don’t feel like swimming. I’m fighting a cold that has claimed part of my voice, and I’m on the mend, and somehow submerging my head in cold water for an hour didn’t seem terribly wise. So, as my friend Nath would say, I “logicked” myself out of getting up, turned off the alarm and napped restlessly for another twenty minutes. But I couldn’t return to peaceful sleep. Apparently I’ve now trained myself to be AWAKE at 5am, alarm or no alarm. Exercise every day was the mantra that shoved me out of bed. I didn’t feel like going to hot yoga, but went anyway. I wanted to be doing something that amped up the lungs and the heart, rather than strengthening and stretching and being all zen and calm and whatnot.
This will be good for you, I told myself.
And I won’t deny that it was.
Sometime in the future, however, I can imagine rising early to write. Yes, it’s early, but I feel so AWAKE. The house is so PEACEFUL. I could write for four hours and it would only be 9:30 or so. Then I could nap. Then I could meet someone for lunch. Then I could exercise. Then I could write some more. Then someone would make me supper. And do the laundry and the dishes. (The children would be able to care for themselves.) Wait, this is turning into full-fledged fantasy.
Clearly something at which I excel.
Here is the crow just landing, or just taking off, from the larger photo above. The wings are a blur. There is something about the colour and tone and the scratchiness of the branches that looks like brush-strokes on mottled paper. The density of the silhouette.
This morning I’ve been taking pencil to page and crossing out words here, pointing arrows there, timing myself reading passages out loud and noting the times down. I’m turning this copy of Juliet into my reading copy. I’m not sure whether I’m just landing, or just taking off.
my view, bedtime
I’ve been reading A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh to the kids before bed. Lights have to be out by 8:30 in the little kids’ room, so some nights that means we don’t get much read. When the big kids were little, we read through the classics before bedtime: the Little House on the Prairie series, Charlotte’s Web, Roald Dahl, some Narnia Chronicles, the entire Harry Potter series (Kev read those to the kids), Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and more I may be forgetting. The little kids are now getting old enough to hear these stories too, but our schedules are so different just a few years on. Evenings have shrunk to make time for extracurricular activities. Sometimes bedtime rituals amount to little more than toothbrushing and tucking in. Lights out.
So when I picked up Winnie the Pooh a few weeks ago, it seemed like the bare minimum. The bar was set pretty low. What I’ve seen is how all the kids crave this time. Crave being read to. It started with the two littlest. The older ones were just passing by in the hallway when they heard laughter: “What’s going on in here?” Room was made in the bunks for them too.
When I looked up from the page last night I saw the most beautiful picture. The photos do not do the scene justice. CJ likes to lie facing me, hands holding chin. Albus brought homework, listening in with one ear. AppleApple was giddy with laughter. Fooey was half-asleep, content and warm under the blankets.
“What time does the clock say?” I ask the kids, and one of them will usually tell me honestly. At 8:30 the last paragraph gets read, the page turned down, the book set aside. Lights out. When we’re done with Pooh, I will pick out another book, for sure.
Aside: Albus is bored with the books he’s been reading and re-reading, and I want to tweak his interest again. Any suggestions? He’s ten and a half and capable of reading quite complex chapter books.
Today I spent an hour at physio, working on strengthening exercises. I also ran on a treadmill for 8 minutes and oh my goodness how I wished it were longer. But I’m supposed to continue doing what I’ve been doing — slow, short runs — for another week.
Today I did not get up early for a swim. I read for an extra hour last night, and slept for an extra two hours this morning (7am versus 5am; makes a big difference). While I regretted not starting the day with momentum, I need to get work done, and with physio knew I’d be hard-pressed to squeeze in a nap too. Brain must function.
Yesterday, I read this post from the Afterword on the fraught business of publicizing one’s book, by fellow Anansi author Robert Hough (and now I must read his new book!). Today I am working on posts for the same venue, to run next month. Topics are wide open, which is rather daunting.
Also, today, I am thinking about the time I have to write. The actual literal time that is available to me. Next year CJ starts kindergarten. But it won’t change my life very much. Except for Tuesday afternoons when the two of us are home together, he is either in nursery school (mornings) or with a caregiver (afternoons until 3pm). My work day ends at 3pm. That will change very little when school starts, or going forward for years to come. The school day is really very short. Several afternoons a week, I pick the kids up for after-school activities that require me to organize and ferry them around (swim lessons; piano lessons). On the other afternoons, perhaps I could shut my office door, lay out snacks, and let the kids fend for themselves until 5pm, in order to gain a full working day, but … would that work? Here’s the thing: by 3pm I’m revved up and working well creatively. It’s painful to shut it down at that moment, day after day. Starting earlier is not an option, not if I want to work out before dawn and see the kids off to school.
How do people work full-time? How? I want to know. I want to be able to do it too. I’m sensing there are no easy answers, just more compromises. So I will count my blessings and be grateful for the time I’ve carved out. (This is worthy of a larger post. When I finish the biography of Mordecai Richler, which I continue to read as if mining for hints and clues to writerly success, I will get to that larger post.)
This morning a very loose tooth came out — the first baby tooth lost from my little girl’s mouth. She was thrilled and yet it was strange. When would the new tooth grow in? When would the next tooth come out? What to do with the teeny-tiny tooth? After some deliberation, she went back upstairs and put it under her pillow.
I felt something the same yesterday. My new book arrived in the mail. I wanted to celebrate. I took goofy photos. I was thrilled and yet it was strange. Part of me didn’t want to read the words on the page. So final. So done. I think that publishing a book is the end of something. It’s the end of what the book could have been (because isn’t there always room for tweaks and improvements? though tweaks and improvements can so easily spin out of control and become hacks and confusions). But, still. It’s the end of that singular imaginative process.
This morning, my little girl lost her first tooth. Momentous. This morning, I stood by the stove, hair wet from my morning swim, and I opened my book and I started to read the words on the page. Momentous. I didn’t want to stop reading and the porridge was late getting made. I read with trepidation and some distance, wondering what the words would reveal that I never intended them to, wondering how to let go. Part of me wants to take the book upstairs and put it under my pillow. Oh, for the simple and magical exchange of tooth for coin, old for new. Gentle passage.
If publishing is the end of something, it is also the beginning of something else. Like Fooey, I am asking: What happens now? What happens next? What does the tooth fairy do with all those teeth?
I’ve given up. There will be no writing this week. There will be, instead, a head cold, dental work, more tests on the creaky hip, appointments, and errands. There will be a PD day (no school for the kids). The laundry will pile up. The suppers will be uninspired. I will also decree some late-night tv watching. Why not?
As for today, as my face thaws nicely post-freezing-and-drilling, I’m going to recline on the couch under a blanket and sink into a book. It stops me feeling sorry for myself, which is the state of mind I loathe more than any other. Yes, it is February. Yes, the rain came and washed away the snow, and then the cold came and froze the slush into lumps of grey. And yes, the sky is the same colour as the lumps of grey frozen everything. And there are flocks of crows in the neighbourhood trees crying and calling. (Let’s call them a murder of crows; let’s put some poetry into our grey). It’s Groundhog Day; I don’t know whether the fat fellow saw his shadow, but if he did that means there was sun.
This too shall pass.
I can feel my cheek again. I can swallow this cup of coffee. I can read a good book. Oh, and it’s fiction — Let the Great World Spin. I’d forgotten (briefly) how much I need fiction in my life. Sure, I like learning new things and taking in facts and theories. But nothing is quite as true for the human soul as the world retold through the imagination. Bless the words.
The latest issue of The New Quarterly (winter, 2012) featuring one of the chapters from The Juliet Stories. ie. your chance to get a sneak preview
Okay, friends, let’s give the giveaway a shot. So, I’ll offer up a prize, interested readers comment below, and a week from today (Jan. 27) we’ll have a draw and announce a winner. Sound like a plan?
Yesterday I visited The New Quarterly’s office and picked up copies of their latest issue. The New Quarterly is a local literary magazine with pedigree and staying power. They’ve published award-winning Canadian talent like Annabel Lyon, Erin Noteboom Bow, Douglas Glover, Stephen Heighton, Russell Smith, Diane Schoemperlen, Rebecca Rosenblum, and Andrew Pyper, to name just a few. A recent issue offered an interview with one of my favourite writers, ever, Alice Munro. Their issues frequently sell out.
Over the years, I’ve been blessed to be a part of the magazine, starting in 1991 when they published two poems that I wrote as a sixteen-year-old angst-ridden word-happy big-dreaming high school student. That kind of encouragement makes a huge difference in a developing writer’s life, let me tell you. It was the beginning of a long relationship. And their winter 2012 issue, freshly mailed and on its way to bookstores, includes a chapter from The Juliet Stories. Here is your chance to get a sneak preview of the book, which won’t be available until March.
The New Quarterly has offered me a copy of this latest issue to give away on my blog. Now, I’m a newbie at giving things away, but I like the idea. Heck, I’ll throw in a copy of my first book Hair Hat for good measure. Why not.
(Speaking of giveaways, Goodreads is giving away ten advance reading copies of The Juliet Stories. And my husband has launched a website called “Help Make Carrie’s Book a Bestseller,” (hey, we can hope!), which will also be giving away prizes to participants. Consider joining.)
Aaaaand. Enough with the giveaways. To sum up: Prizes — The New Quarterly’s winter 2012 issue and a signed copy of Hair Hat. Comment below to enter. Deadline Friday, January 27th, noon.
It’s Friday, the kids are home from school, the sun is shining, there is snow on the ground, and here I am. Wondering: will I write more of The Big Fat Juicy Belly Worm today? My kids are wondering too. AppleApple keeps asking for chapter four. Truth is, it’s been a scrambled week crammed with conversations and variety and plans and a whole lot of dashing thoughts and activities. Amidst the scramble I’ve yet to find a way to settle and sit and focus my mind and find words. But I still have all afternoon.
I am thinking about perfection. I happily admit to being a perfectionist. Not about everything, mind you. But when it comes to writing — and writing fiction, particularly — I obsess. I consider myself a technician, deeply interested in grammatical construction and the very tiniest of word choices. You would not believe how long I can suffer over the inclusion or removal of a “the.”
But as I read these page proofs, I’m starting to question my obsession with perfection. I mean, for me it’s the way I do it and I’m not likely to change what’s working. But I’m seeing that it may not be that important in the end. In the end, a story, a whole book, it works because it leaves the reader with an impression, an emotional impression, something intangible that exists because it exists. Not because a “the” was removed. I’m not speaking against a careful craft, please understand.
I am speaking against perfection.
Sometimes, the imperfection of my creations bothers me. I’ve worked so hard and yet I know here and there is a paragraph too many or a flabby word choice that I cannot budge. But when I let myself sink into what I’ve made and forget about how it could or should be perfected, I am moved by what is being offered. To do this requires me to place a layer of distance between myself and my words, almost to read as if I were someone else.
When I consider my favourite books by other people, none are perfect — and I couldn’t care less. It’s how they make me feel when I read them that matters. It’s that they make me feel. They catch me off guard. They push me. Or they lift me. And though these books almost all display technical accomplishment, it is not for their technical accomplishments that I love them. I love them for existing.
That is the kind of book I hope to write; I hope to have written. Imperfect. With feeling.
I am loving this quiet week in my office, reading words on the page that I’ve written, gathered into a whole. I am loving being pulled right through the book from beginning to end and understanding its wholeness differently, in a new way. This feels like a special and unusual experience. I don’t expect to have it again anytime soon. I am savouring it.
P.S. The photo is a detail of a photo that depicts me posing in costume to look like a very old family photograph of my Great-Grandma Carrie Anne, my namesake. (A little more about Carrie Anne here.) The photo was taken for a photo project by Ilia Horsburgh.