Sometimes I wonder if I need ever write anything else here on this blog, if I haven’t perhaps already written everything I need to write; if the same ideas come around again and again. I just finished reading a memoir by Sally Mann, the American photographer, which is called Hold Still. In May of 2009, I wrote about Sally Mann after viewing, by chance, a documentary on her called What Remains, which was also the title of one of her major photography projects (click here to read that post). Mann’s memoir is lovely, and loving, and offers what feels like genuine and at times unintentional insight into the artist’s mind, her blind spots, her fervour, her view of herself, which may not line up perfectly with the way she is viewed by others.
When you make something, and you send it out to be seen, you lose control over how it is received. She gets that.
There are times when I feel naked, exposed, a character in a story I hadn’t realized I’d been writing. Sometimes I do not know how to be the person at the front of the room. Sometimes I don’t even know if I know how to be the person in the quiet of this room. I don’t know if these people are different people; I would like them not to be, and yet I recognize that a performance is performative by nature, and the domestic self is simply not–but what of the creative self? Does creativity not draw on a bit of everything thrown together, domestic and performative, insightful and riven with blind spots?
It’s been a gruelling start to the new school year, and the marathon of responsibilities continues apace, and to be honest, I feel like I am living a version of life that is unworkable, unsustainable. To fit here, I have to prop my eyes open, I have little time to see friends, I rarely cook or bake, I stagger from one task to the next, I write almost nothing, and I am doing a poor to mediocre job at all tasks required of me. “How do you find time to … ? How do you do it? How do you make time for …?” This question, in its many guises, is asked often of me, and I want to cry when I hear it.
I don’t know. I’m not doing it. I do not have time to. I do not make time for. I am marching bleary-eyed and uncertain toward a goal I cannot see and cannot claim, and yet, I march.
The post that I wrote about Sally Mann, in 2009, was called “On endings.” It’s lovely. I loved re-reading it. It brought me a frisson of excitement, because I was writing about writing the stories that would become The Juliet Stories, and because the retrospective is a comforting viewpoint. But I feel in some ways that I remain in exactly the same position now as then, in 2009: stretched for time, though in new and different ways, and questioning questioning questioning my purpose, my role, my goals, even my desires. Exhaustion rolls through me like fog and bleaches my mind. What remains?
“A year feels like nothing to me anymore, writing-wise,” I wrote, then, more than six years ago. I continue to agree whole-heartedly.
I also see now what I knew already then: that time is what separates those who make something from those who don’t. Well, it’s one of the things. But it’s huge. If your mind is a tangle of appointments and schedules and to-do lists and undone-never-finished-tasks and children and worries and travel and work, you do not have time to spread out your thoughts and sink into them. The physical scattering, the distractions and interruptions, the segmented sliced-up hours: your mind is scattered. How can it settle?
I’ve applied for a grant to earn some time; whether I get this grant remains to be seen, but it’s like I’ve bought a lottery ticket, and I am sitting here holding the ticket and imagining what I would do with this time. I imagine this time clean and crisp and clear, textured by weather and hunger and coffee, hour upon hour without interruption. I imagine it on a windswept hilltop or in a one-room cottage. I am clearly immersed in fantasy. Time is such a luxury. I would like to think I could write my next book beside soccer fields and swimming pools, but I think that I can’t, actually. I can’t. Let’s be honest. Sally Mann makes her photographs alone, hour upon hour in a darkroom. She takes her photographs alone, often, travelling for days or weeks, alone, as she works. The deep gritty stuff happens alone, in quietude, when you’ve fallen down into the depths of yourself, and it is work that doesn’t fit well with much else.
This is not the news that anyone wants to hear–no one wants to hear it. I don’t want to hear of sacrificing one thing for another. But I am already sacrificing many things for many others. One does. It’s the way it goes. The question is: am I doing this consciously, am I choosing this, must I do this, or can I choose otherwise? What would I sacrifice in order to earn that quiet time?
I don’t know. I’m really not sure. I can’t see yet.
Quiet discipline is a massive gamble, and it seems to require the courage (not to mention the resources) to say: this is what I’m going to do, even if it doesn’t work out, even if nothing comes of it, even then, it will have been worth it.
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
Friday, noon. I sit in perfection on the deck of a cottage overlooking a calm lake, pines and birch and cedar moving in a light breeze, the sound of children playing on the rocks below, wading in the shallows. An iridescent dragonfly flutters up and away. The sun is hot. I am wearing a swim suit underneath a brown faded sundress, and a half-drunk cup of coffee is at my elbow.
It feels like this could last forever.
Of course, it can’t and won’t. But there are times when a moment gives the illusion of settling and holding and the mind and body relax so completely that there is no thinking about later, tomorrow, work, duty, responsibility. Ambition vanishes too.
Because what am I part of if not something much greater than my mere human ambition can imagine?
I want for all the gift of rest, respite, dignity, play. At a moment like this, I can imagine no greater gift than somehow creating space for rest and respite, for all who live on this earth. Yet instead we seem most adept at inventing barriers, walls, borders, crises, battles, weapons, dogma that excludes, ideologies of fear and control. There is too much to grieve. I become overwhelmed. I grow weary and distracted. I can’t think clearly.
I sit and watch the lake water move in patterns of eternal symmetry.
Perhaps, I think, my mind is being cleared. Perhaps I will return home less weary, more aware of what matters to me, which patterns I wish to nurture, and which I wish to discard, in order to be a participant in a world where all of these gifts may be shared.
Relief. Simple pleasure. Ease. Rest. Hope.
PS I reviewed Lawrence Hill’s new novel, The Illegal, for The Globe and Mail, and it’s online now, and will appear in tomorrow’s paper. The book is a fast-paced, prescient read on a subject that could not be more timely — the movement of people across borders.
Here is a portion of a conversation I had with Kevin the evening after my reading at the Sunshine Coast Festival. Let me set the scene: we were sitting outside on a deck at a glass-topped table covered with the remnants of a delicious supper we’d prepared for our family, of grilled and shredded chicken, refried black beans, tortillas, and a salad made entirely from vegetables grown in the garden of the house where we were staying: zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes in a ranch dressing.
The kids had gone inside, probably to watch the Food Network. We don’t have TV at home, and while we were at the house on the Sunshine Coast the kids became entranced and mildly obsessed with shows they found on the Food Network, which was all they watched. Their interest extended beyond the television, and they played and continue to play (especially the younger two) games based around preparing imaginary and elaborate dishes that include bizarre ingredients, and judging their relative success and merit. Just this morning, for example, while I sipped coffee and read the newspaper, I was offered fish and shrimp covered in caramel (um … ok?), and beans and rice topped with peach salsa.
That was a long aside.
Back to the glass-topped table, outside on the deck, at the house overlooking the Georgia Strait where we stayed while on the Sunshine Coast. I’d held the stage for an hour that morning, reading from Girl Runner and talking about my research for the book, and I’ll admit that I was feeling pretty high. It’s rare, at a festival, that you’ll be asked to hold the stage for a full hour (most often, authors are paired with other authors and a moderator, a format that works well when the chemistry is good, but tends to elevate one or two voices above the rest, if the chemistry is even a bit off). In all honesty, I was pretty nervous going into that solo hour, even though I’d prepared obsessively and practiced my presentation in advance. It is an honour to be given an hour of anyone’s time, let alone an hour’s worth of warm and generous attention from a sizeable audience. Trust me, in a writer’s life, this cannot be taken for granted. It’s a gift.
And that is essentially what I said to Kevin, while we stared out at the ocean and marvelled at being here, even if just for a few days: “It feels really good to get to do what you feel you are meant to be doing — it feels so good. So useful. To think of all those people giving me an hour of their time and attention. It is such a gift. This is a most lucky life.”
I think my strongest longing, as a human being, is to be useful. It’s why I so enjoyed parenting small children, and why I wanted to be a midwife. But children grow, and I’m not on the midwife path; instead, here I am, forty years old and still writing. And it doesn’t always feel useful. It often feels frivolous, self-indulgent, narcissistic. I try to apply my skills in wider ways, and to other causes. But it always comes back to this: I love writing fiction. I’m good at organizing ideas into a coherent shape. Out of everything I can do, this is what I can do best.
So I sat at the glass-topped table with my husband, and I savoured the moment, my heart and mind filled with what felt like inexpressible thanks. And now I’m trying to express it, because that is what writers do.
I’ve started a new FAQs page. You can find it here, or under the Extras tab, above. So far, I’ve published the answer to just one question, but when I started writing the answer to this one question, I realized it was also the answer to another question and another question. Which probably proves that I’m really bad at FAQ pages. Or that I wouldn’t be able to write a wiki-how page to save my life. Anyway, here’s the first question, and my answer.
Q: How do I find a publisher? (a.k.a. How do I make money as a writer?)
You want to know how to get published. I could answer you with the traditional find-an-agent + agent-finds-publisher = publish your book. This is what worked (and continues to work) for me. But with the rapid rise of self-publishing, about which I know nothing, my experience has come to seem quaint, old-fashioned, and possibly irrelevant. Will the traditional model work for you? I don’t know.
Also, I suspect it’s not the question you’re really asking. The question inside your question is: how do I make money as a writer?
It’s assumed that publishing a book is the surefire way to make money as a writer, but here’s an unscientific breakdown of what happens when we drill down into the esker of being-a-writer and examine the striations: very few writers make a good living by publishing their books; some writers make a modest living by publishing their books; many writers make a token amount of money by publishing their books; and a number of writers make nothing, or indeed spend their own money, publishing their books.
So, I’m going to ask you to put aside the money question, and the publishing question, just for now. The only thing I can tell you about with any authority, or usefulness, is how to be a writer.
There are a variety of ways to develop your craft. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Write in a journal, sit in a public place and write observational notes, compose essays, short stories, poems. Earn a degree in literature, if you can. Ask others, whom you respect, admire and most of all trust, to read and critique your work. This is imperative! Be brave. Critique your own work after letting it sit quietly untouched for at least a week, or a month, or even a year. Revise what you’ve written. Read, read, read some more to study how your favourite writers shape their sentences, find music and harmony in language, and develop narrative. Remember you are learning a craft. Writing is not like thinking or like speaking. It is its own medium. You can’t dictate a great idea onto a page; don’t worry, no one else can either.
Send your stories and poems to literary magazines. Do not be flummoxed by rejection. Hope for helpful critique that will serve you as you write with ever-greater clarity, toward a purpose you alone can achieve. What do you want to say? What do you want to make people feel and think? What are the stories you want to tell — that you feel compelled to tell? If you pursue a creative writing MFA, do it not with the goal of getting published, but as a means of deepening your craft in a concentrated, challenging, and hopefully supportive environment. Learn how to defend your choices; learn how to be open to criticism. There is always more to learn. You are a writer because you are curious, and open, and never done with learning.
Okay, Carrie, enough already, this is completely impractical, you’re saying: How will I have time to read, read, read, and write, write, write, when I’m trying to finish my degree and working two jobs and looking after my family and struggling just to get by?
Yes. I say to you. Yes, dammit, yes!
I wish I had an answer to your question. There’s a gap between being an aspiring writer and becoming a published writer, and then there’s another gap between becoming a published writer and being recognized as an established writer, and there’s yet another gap, which no one ever tells you about, between being an established writer and feeling like an established writer. Complicating all of this, there’s no single direct path to follow, as any published writer will tell you — but what makes it all the more difficult is that supports along the way are few and far between, especially in the early years of developing your craft, but even in the middle years, even in the latter years. (This is also a really old problem that never seems to go away: how to support and develop artistic talent? Especially difficult because art doesn’t make money in a straightforward way, like, say, drilling for oil does; although it could be argued that both are equally speculative ventures, with uncertain outcomes.)
This brings us to grants. The first grant I ever earned as an aspiring writer was from the Ontario Arts Council: it’s called the Writers’ Works in Progress Grant. If you’re from Ontario, look into it. If not, there may be equivalent grants for artists and writers in your community. When I received this grant, I was 27 years old, I’d earned a BA and MA in literature, had worked full-time for several years at a newspaper, and along with publishing a handful of poems and stories in literary magazines, had completed a novel (never published) and a volume of short stories, and had acquired an agent. In other words, I was already quite a long way down the path of aspiring writer. I applied for this particular grant at least three or four times before earning it: selection is by blind jury. I could apply now and not receive it. The point is, grants can fill a gap, but applying takes time, energy, and is something of a crapshoot. (Prizes are a more glamorous subset of grants, but are an even greater crapshoot.)
The other point is, you can be an aspiring writer for what may seem like a very long time; a ridiculously long time; even a foolishly long time. When I go to literary festivals, I sometimes feel like we’re sizing each other up back-stage, sussing out with mutual pity and secret sympathy the heartbreak and delusional determination that each of us must be carrying to be in this vaguely humiliating position of professional, published writer.
But then, I read a really fine book by a completely brilliant writer that fills me with love and joy and admiration and awe, and I think: Who cares! Who cares if it’s pitiful and foolish to want to be a writer, to continue after all these years to write, write, write, and read, read, read. Because this is possible, after all. It is possible, maybe, to write something that will fill someone else with love and joy — or even simply divert someone, entertain someone, amuse someone.
Which brings me around to why anyone would want to be a writer. You might tell yourself that you’re writing for yourself, to please yourself alone, and in some ways, yes, you must do that. But that’s not the only reason, or even the most important reason. You’re writing also outwardly, to reach out, to connect with an ongoing and continuing conversation, out of a long tradition of written work, trying to speak to your moment, which is cast here in time. You’re writing to be read, you hope. We all hope, all of us writers. And maybe we will be, and maybe we won’t be. But please, please, I urge you: don’t write just for yourself. Think about how what you’re writing can reach out — think beyond yourself.
Think of writing as a gift. It’s a gift you’ve been given, if you have a talent for it. And it’s a gift you can offer, if you have a talent for it. A gift is something that resides beyond you. You don’t get to decide how it’s received. And you don’t get to choose what you’re given. This is where grace enters in and takes this whole answer of mine to a place that has nothing to do with money, or success, or any practical, useful measure, socially or culturally or otherwise, and which may explain why making art is not like drilling for oil and never can be: you’re writing for reasons that have nothing to do with money or success. We’d like to connect the two and say that if you are deserving, you will be rewarded; but we also like to define what a reward is: money, success, fame, a fat publishing contract, The New York Times bestseller list, a movie deal.
And so it may be. And so we may wish.
But if it’s not, that doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re a writer because you chase the words, you polish the sentences, you seek out the core of the story, and you never seem to tire of it. You may never be entirely comfortable. You may never be entirely satisfied. You may always believe you could do better. You could rightly call this restlessness, anxiety, obsession; but you could equally name it urgency, hopefulness, and openness. Don’t worry about what it is: it’s what fires you to do the work. No matter the reward.
So that’s my admittedly impractical, useless, absolutely-no-money-back-guarantee formula. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Do the work. It’s a gift.
Respectfully yours, Carrie
It’s actually been a difficult week. I’m on the periphery of two difficult recent losses, women gone too young, both taken by cancer; and wondering how, trying, hoping to support those friends for whom the loss is much much closer, terribly personal. I’m trying not to be paralyzed by the idea that a small gesture is too small, or to fear doing or saying the wrong thing; but I also want to acknowledge that it can be hard to know what to do or say in situations that fall outside of our normal every day interactions. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I wonder how many of us are paralyzed by the fear that we might do or say the wrong thing? Maybe that’s because it is easy to do or say the wrong thing. I think about what mattered when Kevin’s dad died seven and a half years ago, and remember that the questions and interest of people too many steps removed from the situation seemed callow and offensive, even when well-meant and kindly spoken. But the cards and casseroles were wonderful, no matter who they came from, and the presence of friends at the funeral really did help. So from this, I would observe that presence and a simple offering is far and away more valuable than trying to say the right thing. I remember another friend telling me (from personal experience) that the worst thing to say to someone who is grieving is “you must be feeling …” or “you must be so …” Just say, I’m sorry for your loss, he told me. Consider how common the “You must be …” sentence construction is and how often it gets applied to situations out of the norm. I wonder why. No matter the intention, it comes off sounding like the speaker is trying to dictate the ground rules for emotion. Thinking about everything I’ve written here, I’m coming around to concluding that to do is far more valuable than to say, in difficult times. After all, isn’t that our impulse when faced with someone else’s grief or loss: to do something. It’s just that we don’t always know what to do, what’s appropriate, what’s needed, what would help rather than add to the burden.
Perhaps some of you might be willing to share in a comment what words or (more likely) deeds helped you through a difficult time. And thanks for listening.
PS A link to an article in Slate magazine about a woman who designs empathy cards with messages she would have liked to have received during her cancer treatment.