On Monday, I’ll start another “writing sabbatical” spell, two weeks devoted to further revision (and maybe to writing another grant application, if there’s time). Meanwhile, I’m tidying up my interior life, sweeping cobwebs, sorting and organizing, ticking boxes on a to-do list. Seeking courage! There’s been some volunteer work, appointments, I voted early, and morning exercise continues, including several runs with my university kids, who live near enough that our running routes can overlap.
Today, I’ve devoted my hours of quiet to stepping toward that liminal space that is revision, stepping toward the unknown. In preparation, I’ve been reading a print-out of the most recent version of the manuscript, which includes my editor’s notes. I’m marking up the pages with a black pen, responding to her questions and comments. My intention is to finish this preliminary work before Monday. Here’s hoping I can read my scrawl when I head back to working on-screen next week…
Also in preparation, I’ve been doing some free writing, at the suggestion of a therapist.
And yesterday evening, I led a Lynda Barry “X Page” exercise at the inaugural meeting of a writing club we’ve begun at the X Page, with the intention of creating continuing connection and community for those (participants and team members alike) who seek it. Anyone involved in any of our past three seasons is welcome to join. The idea is simple: an hour-long meeting, monthly, to write a story together and then read to each other. Overcoming the limitations of Zoom, that’s exactly what we did yesterday evening, and it was … incredibly moving. Those who shared their brand-new precious stories gifted us with images that were by turns tender, vulnerable, personal, unique, relatable. I remember: two hands almost touching; arms flung out wide to feel the ocean breeze; being knocked down by a wave, fully-clothed; paddling toward sunset; skin burning under a hot sun; the beauty of a remembered city; sand, wind, sun.
The prompt was “ocean” or “lake.” We wrote for 8 minutes. No editing afterward, and no critique from the listeners; a brand-new story is truly a gift, it’s come from somewhere mysterious, and if we’re lucky enough to witness its beginning, all we need to express is thanks.
I often find the X Page exercise to be revealing of one’s state of mind (I’ve observed this in my own writing, in any case). When I analyze the story that popped up for me, what I notice is my desire to be in two places at once, and a resentment that I cannot be. I notice, too, that I’m upset to have missed an opportunity to soak in a unique sensory experience, I long to have that experience in my physical vocabulary (even now, oddly enough, I feel the pull of missing out).
If you’re interested in writing your own X Page, here’s Lynda Barry, in fabulous mirrored sunglasses, leading the exercise herself.
My ocean story, below.
I am in Grandma’s sedan, we are driving from her house in a tidy town in New Jersey to the Jersey shore — the ocean. I have just gotten to spend the night at Grandma’s, which is very special, just me! My younger brothers (I have three, and one is a new baby) were not invited. Grandma made my favourite food (mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy and peas) and she took me to see the movie “Annie” with my cousin, and she bought us candy. Now Grandma is driving me back to the tiny cottage on the Jersey shore where my family is staying — Mom, Dad, brothers. The cottage belongs to Grandma and her husband, and they let us stay there every summer. I sleep in the attic with my brothers, sometimes my cousins too, crowded together. There is an outdoor shower with the floor covered in sand. To walk to the beach you pass big houses with smooth white stones or shells in their front yards.
Grandma is talking. She is telling me about a sandstorm that blew in to the beach yesterday, while I was in town with her. I am feeling a bit upset, though I don’t want her to know. I missed the sandstorm! My brothers have had an adventure that I can’t quite imagine. “Oh, you don’t want sand in your eyes,” says Grandma; but I do. I want sand in my eyes, wind whipping, the ocean wild and exciting.
Summer holiday was sweet. I spent more than two weeks at a boat-access-only cottage, where I saw only a few (very dear) people, slept soundly, did yoga twice a day, swam, kayaked, cooked meals, read, napped, showered outside, tried to watch every sunset.
Fear and anxiety also visited. There was so much space to notice. I noticed what a variety of fears my mind entertains, how many worst-case scenarios play out in vivid detail, flashing through my brain, even as I seek to soothe myself, or try to control outcomes. This is going on a list to discuss with my therapist.
My fears did not stop me from driving the boat, kayaking in rough waters, swimming in the lake, or staying as the lone adult at the cottage. My fears did not stop me. But I wonder: could I change the habits and patterns of my brain? Could the fears diminish in intensity? I don’t want to transfer my fears to my children (another fear!); parenting is an ongoing practice of attempts, improvisations, chance encounters with sorrow and appreciation, raw emotion, apologies for what could have been, letting go, embracing.
Today, I am alone in the house for the first time in a very long time. I can’t seem to settle. The house feels too big for the people who remain here (two children have moved out, graduating to university studies, one living in residence, one living in an apartment with a partner). Less laundry, yes, less grocery shopping, less chaos; less.
Who am I in the quiet? What’s my purpose, again? (Another item on the to-be-discussed-with-therapist list.)
I am not restless, exactly. But I seem always to be seeking, seeking. Expecting more of myself: to be kinder, better, more generous, softer, funnier, sharper, more confident, humbler, less demanding, firmer, more grounded, freer. Do you sense the contradictions? Do you feel the same desire to live amply, comfortably amidst contradiction?
For the past five weeks, I set-up an automatic response on my email that went something like this: “I’m on a writing sabbatical.” I was tempted to keep it forever, but on Tuesday of this week, I turned it off, at least temporarily. This is the week between writing sabbatical and actual holiday (but how to tell the difference between those two amazing and lovely states of being?!). My writing sabbatical felt like a holiday except possibly even better, because it felt so purposeful. I felt so purposeful within it, doing the work. This week of errands and catch-up and to-do lists has been distinctly unsatisfying, by comparison.
To update you on my current project, I spent five weeks working daily (with the exception of most weekends), revising this novel called Francie’s Got a Gun, which is scheduled for publication next summer (2022). Some days got a bit chaotic and I couldn’t stop, working deep into the evening hours, while others had a more orderly rhythm and pace. But overall, I kept returning to the idea of patience, and inviting patience into the process. It’s hard to explain, maybe, but once I get rolling it’s very difficult to stop. My challenge, once working, is to find a way to stop, to detach myself from the work at the appropriate hour: to rest, to relax, to let the thing be.
So I practiced. I stopped to eat supper with my family almost every evening. I went for walks. If my 13-year-old knocked on my door for a dog walk mid-afternoon, I always said yes, no matter where I was at. And I forced myself to take real breaks on weekends, to see friends and family, to take a few (small) trips, to socialize, unwind, or simply just to remove myself from the work.
I practiced taking breaks away because I knew it would benefit the work. Toward the end of the process, I was hugely tempted to pull an all-nighter to finish everything all in one fell swoop, but I stopped myself. Patience, patience. My eyes were tired, it was already late, my brain was addled. The writing would be better in the morning, after a rest. (And I’m sure that it was.)
One of the places I worked, at my youngest’s swim lessons, sitting outside under a tree near the pool.
I’m not a big believer in balance (seems like a concept designed to torment the person attempting and failing to achieve it); but I do believe in focus. I believe that to go deep and be present, I need to set up the conditions that allow me to focus on one thing at a time. Dog walk with son. In-depth revisions. Backyard picnic with friends. This is easier when I have sufficient time to focus on the things that matter deeply to me. What made it possible to ease away from the book on the weekends was knowing I’d be able to focus full-tilt the following week. And this all falls apart when my week-days are split between a bunch of must-dos, errands, meetings and external responsibilities, the disruptions and lack of sustained time prevent focus from ever happening in the first place. Disappointment, disillusionment, derangement is the result. That’s why the conditions need to be deliberately set up, revisited often, and maintained; that’s why I might actually need “I’m on a writing sabbatical” as my automatic email response in perpetuity.
During this week in-between, this liminal week, I’m reflecting on what life will be like with fewer children living at home this fall (only two!!!!); and I’m daring to look ahead a few years and invite some dreaming about what I may want, as the house empties out. (So far the biggest issue has been that I can’t calibrate my cooking for a smaller group; the leftovers my meals create is a legit problem!)
What’s next for Francie’s Got a Gun? Within the next few weeks, I expect to hear back from my editor with comments and notes, and I’ll set up the conditions to get further revisions completed before the manuscript goes to copy editing. There’s a timeline, and it’s a real pleasure to work within it. Comforting. When that work is done, I’ve got more work planned, more projects underway, more reasons to protect many hours of each day to write (and research, and revise).
I almost wrote “just” to write. But no. Why tamp down the fire? Why minimize the desire, the joy, the pleasure I take from this discipline? It’s enough. It’s enough. It’s enough to fill to the brim this one small and precious life.
Week three of intensive revisions. It will take as long as it takes; but also, the work somehow needs to fit itself into the deadline. When I last revised this novel, it was pre-pandemic, and I had a ten-day window to overhaul the whole thing, and somehow I shifted into what in retrospect seems an improbable state of mind, in which I worked twelve hours a day or more, writing brand-new material, sometimes as much as 10,000 to 15,000 words a day. By the end of the process, I was pretty sure I was in an altered state, that I’d driven myself to the brink of madness, and that what I’d accomplished had been a feat of stamina and focus that seemed impossible (and unwise) ever to put myself through again.
So this round, I have more time, and I’m taking it.
I find that I can write for about 6 hours maximum, before my focus begins to wane, or my mind just shuts down, weary, out of gas, the errors and typos beginning to multiply. So I figure it’s best to stay within these limitations (which feel physical as much as mental). I’m trying to stay patient, I’ve got a solid road map to follow, and I keep assuring myself that the work will get done, it will get done. I just have to give myself space to rest, when I hit a tough spot, and time to relax in the off hours: I have to go for walks, runs, see friends. And I must use the golden hours of maximum attention for nothing but this work.
To this end, I’ve set up a vacation message on my email account, naming what I’m doing as a writing sabbatical. I’m at my desk, the message says, but I’m not available. The power of creating this message can not be understated. Why? Because it names what I’m doing as important, it outlines in simple terms my priorities. I think it’s a message to myself as much as to anyone who might be reaching out via email. The message says (to me): It is my responsibility to protect what matters. No one else will do it for me.
These photos are from this past weekend, when my daughter and I visited a friend’s new farm. It was a holiday, but I also took my laptop and worked in various locations, mostly in the car, while chauffeuring my daughter and her friends around.
When I got home yesterday evening, I finally turned down a volunteer opportunity that I’d been weighing, and really wanting to say yes to. But I realized that to say yes to this would be to squeeze my writer self. And she can only be squeezed so much before she begins to fade, to waver in her belief in herself, but also in her basic ability to get her work done. I am trying to take the lessons I’ve learned during the pandemic, which has been the most productive writing time of my entire life, and continue to apply them as the world opens: lessons about the cost of accepting (even seeking!) responsibilities atop responsibilities, commitments atop commitments. Lessons about the cost of squeezing out my writing self. Which is, at core, my fundamental self: the self I am that is not attached to anyone or anything else.
The pandemic freed me, quite a lot; it forced a change in long-held patterns. It jolted parts of me to life again. It reorganized my priorities.
I’ve seen this happen for many others, too, including my friend at the farm who until very recently was my neighbour; the leap she’s made is bigger and more challenging than the leap I need to make, to protect my space and time for writing. I watch her meet this amazingly brave and heart-led challenge and think: I BELIEVE.
I laughed out loud when I heard that Donald Trump quit his blog because no one was reading it. As someone who has been tapping out and publishing blog posts for — eep! — 13 years or so, I would have been happy to predict (for free!) just such an outcome for Trump and his marketing team. A blog is old-school. It’s of the past. That’s probably why I like it so much! It’s like a dream journal, but with an option to press publish. It feels both personal and anonymous (maybe that’s a bit of fiction I use to allow myself to keep posting, but that’s honestly how it feels). Connections are made that seem random and serendipitous.
Other tech platforms have replaced blogs, but so far I haven’t felt compelled to move from this medium that’s as comfortable now as a worn-in pair of jeans. I see creative people posting videos of themselves journaling out loud on Instagram, or streaming on YouTube, and of course TikTok provides a dynamic platform that seems to vault some into viral sensations, something no blog could ever do. Those are visual and aural mediums, where personalities and characters can make a sharp, quick impact on the senses; and a blog is mostly composed of the written word. Of course, the blog has also been largely replaced by the subscriber-based newsletter. And the Instagram feed provides a platform for mini-posts that feel quite blog-like: photo + words.
Where am I going with this rambling reflection on digital communications? Maybe I’m trying to figure out what this blog means to me, and why I keep returning, when other, more popular self-publishing platforms exist. I think I come back because it feels easy. The pace is calm, based purely on my interests and time in any given week. There’s no expectation that something needs to be published on Friday morning, or Sunday night; no endless stream to keep feeding, to try to be seen, noticed, liked. It’s just me and this comforting box on the screen, into which I’ve been typing words for many years.
It doesn’t feel like I’m “creating content” here.
I’m just being me, in the comforting ways that this medium allows me appear.
I would appear as someone different, somewhere else, at least a little bit, and while that could be just fine, and maybe I will experiment and grow into different ways of presenting myself, I like the me that gets to be here, at least for now.
More later …
PS Do you blog? If so, tell me why in the comments and please link to your blog.
This is a photo of a squirrel eating tinfoil on our fence; there was also a cardinal, but he took off and is the streak of motion in front of one of the blue chairs.
The days have begun to whirl again. After such stillness and waiting, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I’m trying to declare the weekends sacred, and Sundays for meditation, reflection; a worthy aspiration, at the very least.
The truth is that I feel energized after a long quietness. So I’m not resenting an upsurge in activity even as this new stage unfolds and unfurls. But I must be cautious, awake: I don’t want to drift back into the non-stop tumble in which we found ourselves, pre-pandemic.
But, listen. It’s good. I’ll have news to share soon on a couple of creative projects. I’ve got work that feeds my heart and mind, and wonderful people around me and radiating out in expanding circles in whose company I delight, and from whom I am continually learning. I’ve been hanging laundry on the line. My children make music in the living-room. The gardens are bursting and blooming. What more do I need?
(Well, it would be nice if everyone in this house each had a chore they really loved … the way that I love doing laundry… and if that chore could be complementary, say, if someone just loved cleaning bathrooms, and someone loved vacuuming, and someone loved clearing the counters … now that would be heaven.)
But listen, too: our community, our country, our land, the whole world, it is shook up and reeling and in pain and in need, and we can’t fall asleep or wander half-dazed into how it was before, we need to be AWAKE and AWARE and CURIOUS and HUMBLE. I want this place I live in to be a little bit better because I’ve tried, in whatever ways, no matter how small … and that means stumbling, and being quiet, and apologizing a lot of the time too. There is so much to learn, and so much pain that cascades through generations. Every ceremony, every ritual, every practice, every meal I cook food for someone else, every time I stop and listen, pause, listen, pause, reflect, sit, still, breathe, laugh, hug, cry … no action is neutral. This past week in Canada, 215 children were found buried in a secret grave on the grounds of a former residential school, and this is our present. This is not history. This is our now. So much cannot be fixed, must not be forgotten; bad governments, bad systems, hierarchies built to maintain power, no matter the costs. And here we are, human beings, whirling and bumping into each other, trying, trying, trying to figure this out. Individuals trying to look each other in the eyes, to listen, to say, You matter. I’m sorry. I want to help. Help me?
Slow down, sit, listen. Someone is trying to tell you something (not me).
That’s my present, right now. That’s my goal. Slow down, sit, listen. Breathe. Pay attention. Burn something, that too. A candle, a stick of incense. Ego.
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