This morning I got on my bike and went to the “county” track meet (ie. a bunch of schools competing, including both of my two older children’s).
The 800 metre start, girls, ages 9-12.
She ran most of the race in lane two. Oops. “Did you know it’s shorter if you run on the inside lane?” “What? Really?!” A real-life math problem.
A hard-run race. I think she was a little disappointed with her end result, but every race is a learning experience. And she ran her heart out! Proud mama.
Tug-of-war. Not so many photos of this child. I was picking up a please-don’t-embarrass-me-mom vibe. Which I get. I’m so sympathetic and can totally feel it, too. Of course I’m going to say something dorky in front of his friends! I remember this age so clearly myself and instinctively want to give him space. Then I wonder: am I giving him too much space and he won’t know that I care? You know?
Then I got on my bike and went to the kindergarten picnic.
We shared our sandwiches (his idea).
The kids performed songs. When it was time to say goodbye, I got so many kisses, so many hugs; it was hard parting. Such a different stage.
And I got on my bike and went back to the track. (My ankle doesn’t hurt on my bike. Yay! Plus I’d forgotten how fun it is to cycle around the city.) Kevin had arrived in my absence, live-texting me results of events I was missing. We both got to watch the relays.
Then I got on my bike and went home.
Found, yesterday, amongst the masses of work brought home from school.
“Who? Carrie Snyder: Author of the GG nominated Juliet Stories and, my mom.
“What? I can learn alot from mom including work hard and you can acheive anything, follow your dreams, or whims depending on which you have. Nothing is really that impossible if you really want it. And are willing to pour your life into it.
“Where/when? At the book launch in 2012, when the story became a book.
“Why? Writing a book with four kids is not easy. The Juliet Stories took seven years to write. It takes an amazing woman with great patience to do that. She sets goals and acheives them. Aside from that she is a very happy person with a big family and a big heart. She is also a runner and marathonist and triathlete. If you don’t think she is successful, I would like to hear what is.”
I don’t know what life is all about, except that it’s for living. Yesterday was a down day. The puffy ankle wasn’t helping. I was feeling pessimistic. I was remembering that the nature of being a writer is being dissatisfied. That’s what gives you the push to keep creating. It’s a sense of needing to do more. I was remembering that I write out of a painful mixture of confidence and doubt, and that it never seems to become easy (not the writing itself, which is frequently joyful, but everything surrounding it). And then I found this. My child was mirroring back to me things I couldn’t see or appreciate for myself. I hope to mirror to my children the same: love and belief and admiration.
Opened the fridge this morning, looking for an egg, and suffered a flicker of regret at turning down a new career path (ie. midwifery; perhaps the egg twigged it). I remember blogging last winter about wanting to escape out from under the expectation that my writing would need to earn a living (even a modest living) — a sweet dream of writing for pleasure, while pursuing work that would be very different indeed. I blogged about the writer’s cycle of survival, which involves filling out many application forms, a cycle that feels like one is perpetually asking for help. How exhausted I felt by the cycle. How I hated asking for help.
And yet here I am, several months on, willingly filling out more application forms.
It doesn’t feel like I’m asking for help, just now. It feels more like an elaborate gamble, which is how my writing life feels, in truth. My maternal grandfather was a gambler. He loved the horses. Like most gamblers, he probably lost more than he won, but he talked a big game. I think of myself as essentially cautious — hey, we’ve lived in the same house for a decade and I never try anything new with my hair — but that may be partly illusion.
When I consider the choices I’ve made in my life, the risks I can stomach, the hope I can generate against slim odds, the faith in the race, I’m not so far removed from my gramps. When it comes right down to it, I’m pretty much a gambler at heart. Or maybe it’s at gut rather than heart, the gut being the location of much of the gambler’s decision-making. It feels right, or it doesn’t. That’s as clear as it gets for me.
I have the gambler’s ability to look forward rather than back. Or elsewhere, rather than here. I separate myself into possibilities, hiving off rejection, stepping free from what isn’t to be with an energy that may flag but oddly doesn’t seem to deplete. I just finished reading Aleksander Hemon’s collection of essays “The Book of My Lives,” and he writes in his final essay something that rings true to my instincts, to what I know about why I write, too: “In my books, fictional characters allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, has been nearly everything). I’d found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my biography. I’d needed narrative space to extend myself into; I’d needed more lives. I’d cooked up those avatars in the soup of my ever-changing self, but they were not me — they did what I wouldn’t or couldn’t.”
My agent tells me, gently, that very few fiction writers survive on their writing alone; most have other jobs. I know this is true. I did very much want to develop a different and separate career, especially one with security, but the truth of it is that my writing hours are essentially full-time as it is, and I am also in the thick of it with my four kids, and there isn’t time or space or energy to add a third parallel life into the mix without sacrificing one or both of the other two occupations.
So I’m back to gambling.
But more precisely, I’m back to the imagination. This is a gamble both literal and figurative. I gamble every time I send a project out to be assessed, in hopes it will find favour and win support, and that process I could take or leave, quite honestly, except that I can’t and I won’t because it’s in support of the larger and more profound gamble to which I see I’m truly bound, and that is the wild, wonderful, risky, ever-creative, potentially illuminating, grace-filled gamble of making something from scratch, of writing more lives than I could ever live. How could I give it up? What wouldn’t I do to keep this gamble going?
It’s unsteady ground, and it has its practical limitations, as Hemon goes on to express heart-rendingly in the same essay, but it’s familiar. It’s known. I know here. I am suddenly reminded that I used to listen rather obsessively to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” the summer that I was ten, and we were living with my aunt and uncle in Tennessee, before moving to Canada. “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.”
No counting shall I do.
I’ve been paying attention to my reading habits more closely this year, and I’ve been surprised by what draws me, by what I find my appetite craving. In children’s literature, it’s the classics that pull me in, even on the millionth read. I’ve also enjoyed without reservation reading fiction by men, this year (which, although I haven’t deliberately avoided in my long reading life, seems anomalous somehow). And I’ve been pulled, relentlessly, to non-fiction, especially memoir.
I enjoy a variety of styles, and often stand back to admire the craft involved in, say, a light and amusing “easy” read, as much as in a book that is complex and innovative. Sometimes I want to be entertained, pure and simple. Sometimes I long to be challenged, or to gaze in awe and wonder. The lightness or darkness of a book’s subject matter or intellectual heft does not matter greatly to me. My taste is broad.
I don’t read idly, however. I read professionally. I really enjoy this aspect of my reading life. It’s hugely energizing and inspiring.
Always, always, as I read, I look for clues. I read to discover how to write better — how to write what I would want to read. And what I want to read is a book that connects.
Here’s another way of putting it: I want to want to keep reading.
The books I love are not a chore. They do not bore.
I’ve observed that certain issues get in the way of my pleasure. Some are fixable, some perhaps not. Lazy copy editing is troubling and very fixable. Laziness in general is troubling. If I’m mentally editing out unnecessary passages, paragraphs, or stray words, it’s going to cause me to stumble in my enjoyment. I can forgive a story an enormous flaw, because I truly believe that sometimes stories are bettered by their flaws. (Consider, for example, Little Women, and Jo never getting together with Laurie, instead marrying that shambling professor who, despite Louisa May Alcott’s valiant attempts to tell the reader how much we should love him too, simply cannot measure up to what might have been — that is a flaw that doesn’t ruin the the reading experience, but keeps it going in the imagination ever after.) But I can’t excuse the lazy flaw, the needed-another-draft, the published-too-soon flaw.
A writer who works, that gives me pleasure.
The evidence of a writer’s work, craft, and practice comes across clearly, to me, in a book’s structural and narrative coherence and imagination. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s not brought about by the kind of writing people imagine writers to be doing: the fevered, drunken, mad creative flurry whose allure appeals in adolescence and fades sharply thereafter. I outgrew it too many years ago now to remember, without some effort, why I ever found it appealing (which I did, and which many aspiring writers/artists do).
What I admire now is the invisible work behind the seemingly effortless offering. Brilliant, I think. And also, thank you. Thank you for your work!
I’m reading two works of non-fiction right now (yes, simultaneously). One I’m enjoying enormously. The other, not so much. The comparison is not entirely fair, as comparisons never are, but there it is.
The one I’m adoring and rationing out while wanting to devour is The Books of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon, a memoir that defies easy description because it is about matters moral, ethical, disturbing, and deeply enlightening. The one I just finished, hurrying because I wanted the essays to end, please, is Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, a memoir on spirituality that felt sloppy, incomplete, and, yes, that dreaded word, lazy. It was a book that seemed to want to give me advice. It told me what to think, rather than opened me to new thoughts. Hemon is telling stories. Lamott distracts with anecdotes. Stories are puzzles that go deep and don’t necessarily tell us what to believe, but instead ask us what we do believe and why, and we wonder how we got to where we are and whether we might change, and how. Where does an anecdote take us? Back to the writer herself, who sure as heck doesn’t want us to forget she’s there. Be brave enough to get out of the way, I wanted to tell Lamott, and let your stories speak for themselves.
I don’t think this necessarily divides along gender lines, although I’ll admit it troubles me slightly that the books I’ve been loving this year have mostly been by men. I don’t know why that is, and there may be no conclusions to be drawn. But here’s what I’m learning from my reading this year: I want to get out of the way when I write, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction. I want, also, to connect. And I do not think those ideas stand in opposition.
on Birthday Eve, still eleven years old
on Birthday Morn, twelve times ’round the sun
I’m feeling compelled to sum up this month, even though it’s not quite over. It’s been such a month, and I’ve been unable to share some of the crucial details of its ups and downs and whirling arounds, which has forced me into awkward positions on this blog, made me into something of a contortionist. My ambiguity has caused a few friends to contact me with concern, wondering if all is well.
Well, all is well. And I don’t mean that in a Rob Ford way, whistling past the suddenly emptied offices of his communications team.
It’s been a good month.
It’s been a good month, but I won’t pretend it’s been easy. Decision-making is never easy, even when one is making decisions about excessively positive things, opportunities one has called out for, and hoped for, and pursued with determination. As I wrote in an earlier post, the doors are open. An open door is a blessing, and I feel blessed to be welcomed to enter.
But I have come to recognize, also, this month, that I can’t walk through every open door, not at the same time. I may contain multiplicities, but I am only one. I can only be in one place at a time. (I know you already knew that, but it’s taken me some convincing.) I am mother to four children. I am a writer. I would like to become a midwife. All those doors are open for me, right now. And I feel blessed. You, however, have probably already jumped ahead to the very obvious question that I somehow managed to avoid throughout this whole process: You are probably asking, okay, Carrie, that’s wonderful and all, but how, exactly, do you plan to go to school full-time, remain involved in your children’s busy lives, and continue to write?
Somehow, I thought I could do it all. I wasn’t going to not do some of it, oh no, I was going to do it all.
Magical thinking, perhaps. I am the sort of person who thrives on juggling responsibilities. Quietly, I told myself I could set aside the writing for the summer months. I did not need to attend so many soccer games and swim meets. We could get a dishwasher. The kids could learn to cook. Quietly, I thought, bring on the challenge.
But then the doors opened, all at once.
And suddenly I had to confront my own limitations — of time and of energy. I had to ask myself: what am I prepared to sacrifice? And I had to accept that now is not the right time to become a midwife. That is a hard sentence to write, and it’s taken me all month to carry myself toward accepting what I’m realistically capable of, right now.
For a good part of the month, I thought that this was an existential question about midwifery versus writing. Do I want to be a midwife or a writer? Well, the fact is, I’d like to be both, and I still believe it’s possible. I am already a writer, married to it for better or for worse and enjoying a happy stretch of career momentum right now. And I’m grateful to midwifery for being a career that does not discriminate against age: expect me to apply again sometime in the next decade, as my children grow up and get their driver’s licences and learn how to cook. No, what I’ve come around to recognizing is that this is not a question about midwifery versus writing. It’s not even, really, a question. It’s about being where I’m at, right now. And right now I have four children in the thick of their young and developing lives, and I want to be at the soccer games and swim meets. The shortened work day might drive me crazy sometimes, but I want to be here after school to gather them in, to follow up and dig around and take care of their lives in this very hands-on way. Juggle and spin it however I like, I can’t commute to another city for school and be here for this now that won’t always be.
How fortunate that I have an office, here, that I have quiet space to work, solitary time that is sandwiched on either side by frenetic activity and demands. I even have time to run and play soccer myself, to cook from scratch, see friends, and go on the occasional field trip. I go to bed done, and I sleep well at night.
I’d still love to doula at friends’ births.
I’d still like the kids to learn how to cook.
And we’re getting that dishwasher anyway — on Thursday, in fact.
When the time is right, I still hope to become a midwife.
But for now, my heart is full with the life that is all around me, right here, right now.
Here’s a poem that wrapped itself around me a few days ago, coming from a book of essays I’m reading by Anne Lamott, called Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.
“Late Fragment,” by Raymond Carver
And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Being ambitious is good when it motivates and propels you. But what if it prevents you from enjoying what you’ve accomplished, because you’re forever pressing ahead with the more that you could be accomplishing?
Kevin offered me that perspective, yesterday, when I was pushing for more, more, more, better, better, better, as I always, always do.
I am thinking about that today.
I am thinking, too, about running. How it’s such a piece of me, now. I only started running regularly about three years ago, so it hasn’t always been a piece of me. But it is, now. It seems fundamental to my health and well-being. When I am feeling down, like I was yesterday with my more, more, more-ness, I drag on my stinky old running clothes and squeeze time to find space for a run.
Yesterday evening, with a thundershower threatening, and a less-than-ideal location (busy semi-rural roads, some with bike lanes, some without), I dropped my daughter at her soccer practice and off I ran, beating a steady rhythm on the pavement, watching out for cars. Around the sixth kilometre, I struggled, worrying I’d gone out too fast, knowing I couldn’t turn around since my route was one big loop. But by the next kilometre the difficulty had vanished and all I heard was the steady drumbeat of feet and breath.
I felt powerful. I felt alive.
“You are your own best medicine,” Kevin said afterward.
It’s a hard thing to do, to run. It doesn’t really get easy. It shouldn’t, anyway. That’s not the point of it. The point of it is to throw yourself into effort and to be present inside your body’s work. And then your head goes quiet. And you enjoy what you’ve accomplished, even as you are accomplishing it.
I’m afraid that writing has been and will always be for me a place of intense discomfort as well grace.
I’m afraid that writing costs me in ways that are physical and emotional, that in order to pour myself into words on the page, I have to make payment. I don’t say this lightly. Creativity cannot be taken for granted. It may be a gift, but it cannot be freely received. The very act of creating means holding something unfinished and imperfect to the light, and loving it for what it might be, even while accepting all it cannot be. It means you’re never really satisfied with what you make. Because you know (and only you do) what you imagined you could have made. It means living an every day life uncomfortably suspended with your unfinished work.
I suppose we all have unfinished work. Unfinished business. Longings. Discomforts. I suppose this is not unique to the writer and it sounds self-pitying to suggest so. Let me be clear: I’m not sorry to be a writer. I’ve chosen this as much as it’s chosen me. I could have been, and could yet be, something else.
I think it’s just that I’m beginning to understand what it is I’ve chosen, by being a writer.
And why I need to run, if I am to write. I am not running away. I am not running toward. I am running. It can never be like that with writing. So I’m thankful, thankful, thankful to be able to run.
Quiet in the house. Construction noises loud outside.
Outside, 20 degrees C, sunny, windy. Clothes on the line whipping in the breeze. Small dog settling into dead leaves in raised garden bed, beside newly greening rosemary and thyme.
Thinking of the books I will write.
Seeing their spines in my mind’s eye. Sweet imagination.
Even while pressing down anxiety, clothespin in hand: What’s happening after school? Where do I have to be, when? Which carshare car have I booked? How early does supper need to be on the table?
I think, pasta with the last of the tomatoes.
Small dog stands, alert, to warn me of approaching pedestrians, big diesel trucks, other dogs, a squirrel.
Locating myself in time, to this moment.
Thinking of all the books I will write.
Everyone will get to where they need to be, even if they are a little bit late. Even if we are always, perpetually, just a little bit late. Rush, rush. “Mom, we’re fast-pokes, you and me.” (Fooey, age 7, and always organized and ready to go.)
Thinking a run in the woods. Touring the science fair. Soccer under this swept sky. What good kids I have. I will write them a book.
Clothes flapping to dry under a promising sky.
All the books I will write. All the books I will write.