Don’t worry. I’m not going to write a blog post on the subject of not making prize lists every time my book doesn’t make a prize list. (Whew, that was a close one, says the good reader.) Nope. Today my nap told me to blog about all the really good things going on in this crammed old life. So here are some of the things I’m glad for right now.
* Killing two birds with one stone: Oldest son is supposed to read out loud for 15 minutes a day. Youngest son adores books featuring Star Wars characters which mother refuses, on principle, and for the sake of her sanity, to read. Ergo, oldest son reads Star Wars books out loud to youngest son.
* Freelance gigs arriving at exactly the right moment. Exciting freelance gigs — even better.
* Surprise messages in my inbox from readers who have loved The Juliet Stories. Still working out the best response to these, since they tend to make me feel a) self-conscious, b) teary-eyed, and c) weirdly unqualified to reply. (Like: did I actually write the book this person is referring to?) Funny thing: when I say thanks for telling me you liked it, people often say, no, thank you for writing it, at which point I get stuck because saying you’re welcome seems weird. Or maybe it doesn’t? Let me try this out: “Thank you for writing a book.” “You’re welcome.” Now I’m not sure. Maybe that’s exactly all I should be saying. Though it’s tempting, also, to add: That’s awesome, now, please tell all your friends to go buy copies too!
* This message in my inbox from a friend: “I have to tell you, half an hour ago I saw a great picture unfolding as I drove by [your daughter’s school] … Up on the level ground, I saw a girl with long red hair dribbling a soccer ball through a large pack of boys.”
* Festival season. Wow! Is it ever festival season! I’m reading at Word on the Street at Kitchener City Hall (inside) at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon. And then I’m up and flying to Winnipeg for the Thin Air Writers’ Festival where I’m reading on the Mainstage with a crowd of other writers, starting at 7:30pm on Monday. On Tuesday at 2:30pm I’ll be back, along with Cordelia Strube, for an on-stage chat with Charlene Diehl. Charlene is the director of Thin Air, and she just happens to have been one of my favourite professors way back when. I’m really really looking forward to this.
* Happy, improbable fantasies: such as, why not train to do an Ironman this year? A friend posted on my Facebook wall that she thought I could do it — her husband just completed his second, and managed the feat despite training only over his lunch hour (!!). So now I’m thinking, yeah, I’ll bet I could do it! Except I have no spare time for Ironman-level training just now. Maybe come winter??
* Texting. Seriously, I love the medium. Has anyone else noticed that there is something poetical about the form? Sometimes it’s nothing but pure comic poetry.
* And, finally, a shout out of congratulations to everyone on the Writers’ Trust short list, especially to Tamas Dobozy, whose kid was on my kid’s soccer team a few years back, so we swapped stories on the sidelines about agents, editors, and trying to get published. I love the smallness of the CanLit world.
(Now, in traditional blog call-and-response style: want to tell me what you’re glad for right now?)
Yesterday evening, I did something I’ve never done before. I went to a local big-box-bookstore and sat at a table just inside the front doors, behind neatly stacked piles of The Juliet Stories and a little poster that said, “Meet the Author!” All of this had been arranged in advance, of course, but I hadn’t really known what to expect.
In the opening moments, I had the sinking feeling that it would be humiliating in the way that certain exercises in one’s literary life can be — readings to which not very many people turn up, or readings to which many people turn up to hear the other person on the bill, leaving one sitting behind a stack of books that no one is interested in buying because they are all lining up to have the other person sign his/hers. Yes, this has happened to me. If you’re a published writer in Canada, it’s probably happened to you, too.
I’m not complaining. Like Margaret Atwood says (and I paraphrase), “Don’t whine. You chose this. Nobody made you be a writer.”
In any case, as the evening proceeded, I discovered quite a lot to enjoy. I smiled at everyone who walked through the doors, and almost everyone smiled back in a seemingly genuine way. The few who didn’t interested me too: they would pretend not to see me at all. Approximately a fifth of all customers were immediately drawn to a lamp that was also in their sightline. (I had to check it out too, finally, and it was quite pretty; but no one actually bought it.) I started to feel more comfortable in my role as “Meet the Author.” Strangers approached and bought the book. My mom arrived and bought two copies! (I was embarrassingly excited to see her, as that was early on and I was worried no one might actually approach.) Acquaintances from Twitter and Facebook dropped by too.
Almost to a person, those who came up to talk to me approached in the same way. Enter customer through front door. Smiles exchanged. Customer takes second glance at table. Customer heads off into greater store. Fifteen minutes later (or so), customer returns, pauses beside table, touches a book. I stand and ask if they’d like to know more. We chat, often at length. I sign book.
One woman had never met an author before. Several had children who were curious to know more about making books. “Do you have a really big printer at home?” One woman laughed at everything I said as if I were wonderfully witty (I’m not). The only person who approached, chatted, and didn’t buy the book was also the only man who approached (other than the fellow who thought I was a store employee and wondered where to find books on Japan). I got the biggest smiles from the men, on store entrance, but only one returned. Maybe most men don’t read fiction? Or maybe they don’t read fiction with a girl in a bathing suit on the cover?
All in all, it was a genuinely pleasant evening, and I’d sign up to do it again without hesitation.
I haven’t read from The Juliet Stories all summer. May and June were heavy with readings and appearances, and it was a relief to take a little holiday. But readings start up again in September, so it seemed wise to reacquaint myself with the words on the page — which is what I did during the slow moments yesterday evening. It reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing.
This morning I was digging in the attic through old boxes of manuscripts, and came across early versions of The Juliet Stories. Wow. In various drafts, the titles included “American Sandinistas,” “Photograph Never Taken,” “Blackbird,” and, simply “Beautiful Book.” I remember giving that particular draft that particular title because I needed to feel hopeful about the work ahead. I needed to believe in it. I was still two years away from finding the form that The Juliet Stories would inhabit. A long haul, and yet, reading over those printed words in the store last night, it felt worth it. I’m glad that I stuck it out.
This is a very different point in the publishing process, but I need to stick it out, similarly.
I’m fairly certain that everyone who bought a book (with the exception of my mom, and one Twitter friend) wouldn’t have found The Juliet Stories otherwise. One of the great mysteries, as an Obscure CanLit Mama, is how to reach people who might like the book, but who will never hear about it. Which is, let’s be honest, the vast majority of the reading population. That’s why independent booksellers, who hand-sell the book, are so important to writers like me. That’s why friends who tell friends who might tell more friends about the book matter so much. And that’s why I’m more than willing to sit behind a table in a big-box-bookstore smiling at everyone who enters.
Sunday, day one. Pack up post-successful-soccer tournament and drive east 281 km to spend night in hotel, booked in advance. Eat pizza in truck. Feed dogs by roadside. Arrive after dark only to discover hotel has no adjoining rooms. And the gym is already closed. Split up into two rooms, boys and girls (with dogs in boys’).
Monday, day two. Take dogs to vet (it’s a complicated story). Spend morning at hotel, swimming, running on nearby lakeside trail. Pick up dogs mid-afternoon and drive east 111 km to visit new nephew/cousin. He’s only five days old!
Tuesday, day three. Visiting with family, swimming in the basin of a nearby lock, running/hiking on a beautiful wooded trail, playing badminton and soccer, walking dogs on rocks, staying up late to watch silly tv (everyone) … oh, and doing that 11-year-old specialty: the I’m-bored flop.
Wednesday, day four. Brunch with grandma, aunt, uncle, cousins; say goodbye. Pack up and drive west and north 423 km. Threaten at various points during the journey to pack it in and just go home (arguing children, restless dogs, exhausted parents). Instead, surge ever onward. Until we get here.
Thursday, day five. Dogs cry all night; luckily only Kevin and I can hear them; unluckily, we are running dangerously low on sleep. Luckily, I find on the cottage shelves a light and fluffy book into which to disappear for the better part of the day: The Nanny Diaries. And the children play. And we swim. And we walk the dogs around the rocks and woods. And we celebrate Fooey’s birthday (again!), this time on a boat in the middle of the lake.
Friday, day six. Dogs sleep better. Kevin and I sleep better. Motorboat and water skiis tested out. More swimming. I disappear into past issues of The New Yorker, discover the journals of Mavis Gallant from Spain, early 1950s. As the writers of The Nanny Diaries would say: “Swoon.” (Only they’d say it about the hunky guy upstairs.)
Saturday, day seven. More water-skiing and boating. A long swim out to “Poop Island,” accompanied by kids and Kevin and my dad in canoe and kayaks. More long-form essays in The New Yorker devoured. More food eaten. Dogs happy in shade. Ahhhhhh.
Sunday, day eight. More swimming, skiing, boating, eating, reading, all crammed in before a late lunch. Pack up. Boat out. Drive west and south 302 km, with interlude by the side of the road due to vehicle trouble. (Should have gotten a photo of that for posterity.) Four kids, two dogs, two parents, seventeen bags of dirty laundry, and by golly, we make it home. CJ: “This doesn’t feel like my bed! It feels different.”
‘Til next summer, then.
A brief addendum, applicable only today. I’m signing books this evening at Chapters in Waterloo from 6-8. Stop by if you’ve got a few minutes. We can chat about The Juliet Stories. Or swap summer holiday stories.
Yesterday evening, a weird thing happened.
None of us had anything we had to do, there was nowhere we had to be, and nothing was scheduled. Giddy with freedom, I neglected to make supper until very late (and then I had Kevin grill stuff on the BBQ). We ate at a leisurely pace. A normal, human, conversational pace. It was pleasant, a treat; but I could hardly keep my eyes open. I was sitting there, filled up, contemplating the next step — dishes and laundry — when it occurred to me that on this evening of nothing to do, I was too tired to do anything. I was crashing. I mumbled something to the effect to Kevin: must lie down. Staggered to the couch, napped for a few minutes, and then for a few minutes more.
Finally, I arose and conquered dishes and laundry.
But I was so tired. It was almost as if, in the absence of having to keep going, having to maintain energy and momentum, my body figured it could just quit. And so it did.
A confession: I’m having trouble maintaining my early morning exercise; I was down to two mornings this week and last. Unless I’m meeting someone, I’m choosing not to drag myself out of bed. Partly it’s the evening activities, partly it’s the late-night reading (first it was the biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and now it’s Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, which has me gasping every other page — have you read it? I realize I’ve come to it late, and it’s been out for years, but it’s one of those memoirs that could not have been fiction because a) it wouldn’t have seemed real, and b) audiences would have despised the creative mind who thought it up. Anyway, it’s pretty close to brilliant, and I’m loving it, and therefore can’t put it down).
That was a long aside.
This week has been good preparation for summer holidays. On Monday, my babysitter was sick, so instead of spending a full day at my writing desk, I got the morning followed by an afternoon with two four-year-olds; who were delightful and spent an hour enjoying lunch, I must add; but still. It wasn’t quite the same. On Tuesday, Fooey felt sick, so she stayed home. By lunchtime, our numbers were up to three kids versus one mom (I was babysitting CJ’s friend again). It was hard not to feel resentful — my quiet house filled up with noise.
But then I realized: this is just a taste of SUMMER. I’ve arranged for babysitting during most days, and that’s wonderful; but I work from a HOME OFFICE, and the children will be AT HOME. The quiet and privacy that is this beautiful humid sunny glorious Thursday morning is a total luxury.
I’m mostly awake. I’m savouring it.
Just before my reading yesterday (Wednesday) evening, the skies opened up. Talk about raining and pouring. And hailing. It was dramatic. Perhaps it purged my anxious mood, because by the time I got to the event at the library, everything felt magically relaxed. Or maybe that’s experience coming into play. After all, I have been reading and speaking in public on a fairly regular basis for the past few months.
A friend commented yesterday that she hoped I would find hidden value in my decade of at-home-with-children work; and there is no doubt it’s made me who I am.
I’m less self-conscious, for example. Any public outing involving infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and yes, even 11-year-olds, toughens the hide considerably. And my children have taught me how to ask for what I want — on many levels. If your child has ever been in need, you will discover within yourself reserves of grit and determination, you will knock on doors, you will be persistant and annoying and you won’t give a damn about being judged. On a different level, asking a child to do a task requires simple, straightforward communication. Forget fancy, forget dancing around a subject — state what needs doing in three words or less. So these are hidden assets I’ve gained over the years.
But other skills are rusty …
Alright, I started this post many hours ago, this is how far I got, and I’d like to finish it before bedtime. What has this crazy day held? I worked all day on a story on dinosaurs that is still not quite done. I set up an interview for tomorrow morning. I discovered we have a meeting at our eldest daughter’s new school early tomorrow morning; and that Kevin can’t attend due to work. I managed to make supper from scratch in about twenty minutes flat. Instead of eating it, I worked on the dinosaur story. Soccer girl and I biked to her soccer practice. The weather was gorgeous! I went for a run, and discovered speed — for the first three kilometres. And I hacked it out for the next two, and ran 5km in 23:38, my fastest time yet; and then I hacked out another kilometre and a bit, making it 6km in 28:52. (This is not record breaking time for anyone but me; but it felt good.) After soccer practice, the two of us stayed and practiced penalty shots — AppleApple in net, and me kicking. Addictively fun! Then we biked home. Dishes awaited. Laundry still on the line. Supper still on the table. Exhausted children to put to bed.
Man. I’m tired. I should not be typing, I should be reading in bed right now. I’m currently reading about the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I spend a lot of time turning to my husband to report on the crazy things she’s getting up to. Did you know she was one of the most famous women in America in the 1930s? A poet! She sold 68,000 copies of a book of poems in eight weeks in the middle of the Depression.
More on Vincent to come, methinks.
For now, to sleep, perchance to dream.
So often, starting a project is the hardest part. Last month, a literary friend, Kristen den Hartog, whom I know only virtually (another reason that I love blogs!) asked whether I’d like to write a guest post on her blog, which is charmingly titled “Blog of Green Gables.” In fact, hers was the first blog I ever subscribed to by email, and I’m always happy to find an update in my inbox. (You can subscribe to my blog the same way, if that sounds appealing.) Kristen posts beautifully illustrated, thoughtful, informative, long-form reflections on reading books with her daughter. Most recently, they’ve been reading through Roald Dahl, and her last post was on Peter Pan.
I was thrilled to be asked to contribute on the subject of reading to/with my kids.
And then I got stuck. I tried this, I tried that. The subject seemed suddenly vast, my thoughts on it scattered and disparate. I set the attempted essay aside. And I waited. It took me several weeks to understand why I was feeling overwhelmed and disorganized: because the shared reading experience has changed so much over the years. There have been more stages than I can count. Many detours. Memorable moments. So many amazing books discovered. And perhaps just as many tedious ones too. When I think about reading with my children an entire photo album of memories comes flooding into my mind.
Once I understood the problem, I embraced it. I decided to write about the many stages of reading. And here is the essay. I love the way Kristen has illustrated it. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.
P.S. Met my deadline without breaking a sweat yesterday. Now onward to writing week. Talk about starting being the hardest part …