A good writing day is like manna, like heaven on earth, like a happy dream. You feel purposeful, adventurous, inspired. You’re carried along, you’re surprised and delighted by what you find.
But that’s not today.
Today’s revelation comes from a different place: Today was a slog.
You weren’t very happy with the bones of the story you’d laid out yesterday, and it felt insurmountable — the problems to overcome, the incoherent structure, the didactic tone, the clumsiness, the exposition. But you went ahead and tried, anyway, to dig into the story. To write.
And guess what! Note to self!: Even a writing day that feels like a slog is a glorious accomplishment. Maybe even more than the day that felt easy. Because you didn’t give up. Because you were kind to yourself. When you read over the ragged sentences, you didn’t say: this is crap! (Even if it was.) You said: this is a very rough draft. All drafts start out rough.
This is what a rough draft looks like.
This is a start. You start by telling the story to yourself.
Then you dig in, you get your hands dirty, you notice what’s alive and you go there and pay attention, and gradually these piles of bones begin to fit together, to fill out into a story that you can do something with.
Revise, play, revise, play.
It’s play, this process. Like playing imaginary games as a child, where there were rules but you were making them up as you went, and there were always more possibilities, depending on who or what drifted into the scene, and you got to get dressed up and be someone else, a changeable someone depending on what was needed, and you packed a snack, and you climbed a tree, and you sat up there, pretending till it seemed the world was yours to make and make up.
The slog is all of this. So don’t fear it, jump in.
Last week I attended live webinar sessions on publicity and marketing, hosted by Penguin Random House, and open to any PRH author. (Please don’t stop reading just because I said “webinar”!) My only expectation was that this would be outside my comfort zone; and that I needed to attempt to engage on this subject, and at least acknowledge the truth that to publish a book is to be called to champion that book. And let’s be frank: the call to personally champion and publicize one’s own book feels overwhelming. (A stat dropped during one of the sessions: over 200 books are published each week — that may be a US-specific stat, but the point remains. It’s a crowded marketplace. What’s a writer to do?)
First, I want to confess that I enjoyed the webinars a lot. (This may be a sign that a) I’m starved of peer-to-peer contact and b) must start inviting friends over again to the back yard shack — it’s been a long, cold winter!)
Second, the most practical advice I gleaned is to tailor your approach to your own interests, abilities, affinities. Also useful: if you’re using social media for publicity purposes do it like this: get on, post, get off. At one point, someone said “You’re looking at branding yourself for a clear trajectory long-term,” and I wrote in my notes (oh god, I have not done this well at all!), by which I meant having “a clear trajectory.” I won’t even touch the subject of branding, but the question that kept humming around my brain was: Is anyone going to ask what happens when you make yourself into a brand? (No one did, me included; honestly, it wasn’t the right forum for that question, if there is a right forum.)
Third, the sessions made clear that most successful writers get good at a bunch of things (podcasting, publishing a newsletter, posting videos on TikTok or streaming on Instagram Live, or teaching, speaking, etc.), and the books they publish are just one thread in a web of activities, built around their interests and expertise. Okay. But does this apply more aptly to writers of non-fiction: academics, public figures, chefs or doctors? Maybe; I observed that most of the best-selling authors profiled in these sessions were writing non-fiction. However, I think this approach can make sense for fiction writers too — if it builds and develops naturally.
Confession: I’m resistant to the idea of self-promotion. It feels self-serving, and I’m uncomfortable with that; further, it’s the part of the job that in the past drained my energy and ambition, filled me with dread and fear. Even writing this post is giving me twitches of shame. I sense myself needing to explain: everyone does it, it has to be done, they’re telling me I need to be good at this, I’m just trying to figure out how. Please forgive me, please don’t hate me.
That desire to be liked goes deep, but it’s not just that; I’ve been conditioned to believe, way down deep, that women who stand up and demand an audience aren’t just unlikeable, they’re vulnerable. These are deep fears. Drawing attention to myself, becoming a target, getting mired in ego, serving self not others, making claims that maybe can’t be met, over-stepping, saying the wrong thing, getting too comfortable and getting knocked down … so many fears. But here’s what I know: anytime I approach a problem or a goal from a place of fear, I get knotted up, confused, entangled, and overwhelmed.
There is another way, a different approach: to come from a place of clarity, grounded, focused on the goal, attuned to changing contexts, curious, open to learning, and connected to the source of my own values and purpose. Picture a tree with deep roots, branches moving, changing with the seasons. (There’s my vision for a clear long-term trajectory!)
Here’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m going to accept my own challenge, and begin this marketing/publicity exploration from a place of curiosity, by asking:
What resources are already available to me? What am I already practiced at doing? What do I already know?
What would I like to learn or try out? What am I curious about?
Who is with me on this path? Who are my collaborators, mentors, friends and peers? Where do we meet?
What compelled me to write this book, and why does it matter so much to me? What themes and interests are woven into this book that connect with my world and perhaps also with yours?
Answers (musings, reflections, wonderings, and likely more questions), coming soon.
PS I’ve been signing up for more live online events, and I’ve noticed that it’s the live part that works. Has anyone else found this too? Even with my microphone and camera off, it feels like I’m part of something — an audience member, a participant, engaged, ever so slightly necessary to the proceedings; pre-recorded doesn’t compare. (Then again, neither does live in-person, but we take what we can get right now!)
A year, a year, it’s been a year. We’re all thinking about this, aren’t we. Where we were a year ago when we knew. When we knew that something big was happening to us, out of our control — something that was shifting the ground under our feet, cancelling our plans, sending us indoors to scrub all the surfaces, separating us from friends and loved ones, making the world go quiet.
A year ago, I was so busy, so squeezed for time, so exhausted, stretched so thin, that when everything got cancelled — the X Page workshop, soccer, school and kids’ activities, the gym — what I felt in the immediate aftermath was simple relief. I was so tired, it seemed I’d been operating on the verge of collapse. Suddenly, I could sleep, and sleep is what I did, sleeping, then staggering around in a blur, checking twitter a million times a day as if I could discover an accurate prediction of the future, or figure out how to assess risk. I suppose we’ve been trying to figure that out all year. A year on, we know more, collectively, about the risks and about what mitigates risk, including wearing masks, which we didn’t understand in those early months when instead we were bleaching the countertops and sanitizing the doorhandles and washing our hands till the skin cracked.
It wasn’t until just now, as the anniversary has come upon us, that I’ve recognized my own feelings of grief and loss. It’s been a year of pause. We’ve experimented, yes, we’ve tried new ways to interacting, we’ve baked sourdough bread, and gone for hundreds of walks, and helped each other out. Some of this is working quite well: I love doing yoga online in my own little studio; I love chatting with Grandma on Zoom. And I’ve loved having this extra year with all my children still living at home.
But … but … for me, as for many of us, I’ve lost some part of my identity, I’ve lost work and volunteer opportunities, my kids have lost much of their spontaneous social interactions with peers, and I have too.
Many of us have been more alone. Or, we’ve seen people we love struggle, being more alone, and we’ve been unable to help in the ways we ordinarily would and could.
And while I’ve learned a lot that I want to keep from this past year, I’ve learned, too, that it’s important to acknowledge what I’m carrying. And the truth is that this year has felt strangely empty, like lost time. I don’t know how to explain it. But there it is. Looking back across this year is like looking at a scene in which almost nothing moves. It’s quiet. I can hear the wind and the birds. It’s eerie, too. There’s something on the edges of this quiet that is unsettling; uncertainty; a continual unfolding in all directions toward an unknown horizon. That’s what I see when I visualize this past year.
Others will have a very different picture in their minds.
I haven’t been anywhere near the front lines. Those stories of this year would be completely different in tone and energy, learning, loss and grief.
Here’s the thing. I don’t know what I want to do next.
Part of me wants to burst with the coming hope of spring and vaccines and reopenings. Part of me waits, wary and cautious, unwilling to venture any guesses, or name any desires.
And part of me floats above all this, and says, hey, this day, this hour, this moment is what you’ve got, and you are safe, you are loved, you are not alone. Let yourself be here, unfolding out toward unseen horizons.
- What felt good this month? This month passed in a flash! I won’t say it’s been easy, but a few things that felt good involved small actions that directed my energies outside of myself. Being a fiction writer doesn’t offer many opportunities to directly serve or (even interact with!) others, which is something I struggle with, but these actions made sense for me, right now: I donated blood (first-time), and will donate again, because I can—(At the clinic, I kept thinking of that slogan “It’s in you to give”; it felt like an uncomplicated way to be helpful); I’m in the midst of helping organize season three of The X Page: applications are open now to refugee and immigrant women in Waterloo Region, who are interested in storytelling—please spread the word!; I enjoyed Tuesday morning conversations with my grandma, who lives in Indiana; I got more involved at church; and I had fun sending out daily messages for two weeks to my word of the year group, as we did a “tea cleanse” together. My days are spent mostly inside the same rooms of the same house with the same people; reaching out felt really really good.
- What did you struggle with? Apparently, I struggled to remember this question existed! Somehow, it got lost while writing the original draft for this post; I’m answering it today, March 2. I struggled to figure out how to support my children, all living under this same roof, while also offering them independence, autonomy, and the “right” amount of responsibility. Are my expectations too low, too high; do they have enough opportunities to separate from me and be with their peers? Teenagers need their peers, a lot. The pandemic has made these important years for developing independence very challenging to navigate (and it wasn’t easy in the first place). So, parenting. That’s been a struggle, and these micro-decisions, made daily, weigh on me.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I’m okay. It feels like spring is in the air … but not quite near enough. I’ve been working steadily on a writing project, and have heard from my editor with a revised timeline for my new novel: all good! Within the waiting, I can still be productive and find focus and hope.
- How did you take care of yourself? This one’s a bit tricky, at least this past month. I’ve got solid habits and routines: I practice those daily; sometimes they bring me joy, but sometimes they’re just plain shoring me up, which is often what they felt like this month. Self-care has looked like this: Rarely drink alcohol. Exercise most days. Stretch often. Eat homemade food. Give myself permission to veg. Tell my body how awesome it is (this is more important for women raised in the 1980s and 90s than you might realize!). Play the piano: I’ve been doing this almost every day, and it’s freeing and fun.
- What would you most like to remember? That I like reading novels all in one gulp! Take a Saturday, Carrie, and just lay on the couch and read a novel from start to finish. It’s the best escape imaginable. (Just finished Lily King’s Writers and Lovers; and before that, Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions.)
- What do you need to let go of? Shame. The fear of doing things wrong and offending people. The fear of being unworthy, or embarrassing, or flaky, or foolish. It would be so lovely to give myself the gift of trust. I’d love to enter the world freely, messily, making mistakes and owning up to them, and learning from them; getting back on the horse, again and again. I need to let go of my craving for acknowledgement and permission. And just get on with doing the work.
Yesterday afternoon, I set out solo in the sunshine. I love the people in my house and I love my house; yet the need to escape was powerful. To move.
On the busier sections of path, snippets of conversation floated past:
“The single-best way to leave a legacy, guaranteed, is to have a lot of children—” (Spoken by one young man to another, both wearing sunglasses, coming toward me on the trail.)
“Actually, I had a bit of a set-back this week. My tennis friend called and said ‘I have bad news….'” (Two women crossing my path diagonally.)
The sun was so warm, I took off my scarf and hat, unzipped my jacket.
On the quiet stretches of path, I told myself stories about who I wanted to be, who I remembered being. Who knows what a calling is anyway? I miss interacting with people. I miss working with students, I miss coaching. I said this out loud, so I could really hear it.
I listened to an On Being podcast three times yesterday, while mixing and kneading bread dough, doing laundry, searing a small roast, chopping veggies (though not while out walking): Krista Tippett’s conversation with Ariel Burger. I listened and listened and listened, trying to absorb the wisdom.
Do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
It sounds very basic: a recipe for being a witness, not a spectator.
I wondered what to do if the person being humiliated was yourself; what then? (The podcast does not discuss power.) I see people who are hurt and wounded by their interactions with systems designed to crush and humiliate them, hurt by people acting within those systems, and I think: what protection is there against this cruelty, injustice? We are asking too much of individuals to fight for themselves, by themselves.
Maybe that’s the power of witness? If you can, if you are able, be a witness, a true witness, and do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
Be a blessing.
Be a blessing? How? Alone in my studio, writing stories? With my family? Reaching out to friends?
We are also called to be as strangers to each other, to recognize and acknowledge that others can and will surprise us, if we allow them to. If we approach each other (strangers, family, friends) neither from a place of fear, nor from a place of over-familiarity, what will we learn?
To be a blessing is to push against, as well as to meet. My ideas, experiences, perspective, beliefs will not match up perfectly with yours, no matter how we might wish it. Unity is not conformity.
The divine in me sees the divine in you.
But you are not me. I am not you.
To be blessed is to be given something to carry. A blessing can be heavy. It can ask a lot of the other, the one who is seen. As a coach, as a teacher, as a parent, what I hope to communicate is the deep value in trying; not striving, necessarily, it doesn’t have to be so strenuous; trying. To say: I tried, is to acknowledge your own effort. To say: You tried, is to see someone else’s, to name it.
There’s a lightness to trying. There’s acceptance that trying doesn’t always lead to success. There’s room for surprise. Experiment. Consider. Be blessed. Leap. What if you try and you discover something different, something unexpected, something you weren’t looking for? Isn’t that wonderful too? To try is to leave room for curiosity.
Today was Kevin’s birthday. I picked up smoked salmon and bagels for a birthday brunch, and stopped by Mom’s on the way home to surprise her with a donut. She thought up the most lovely birthday surprise for Kevin — books delivered from Wordsworth. I wish my worries for her could be solved from within (myself, I mean). Looking at this drawing now, I can see exactly what I did wrong when drawing the stairs! It makes me happy to see it. Then I might see it differently when drawing stairs next time. (Chairs are another struggle …).
This drawing is based on the animation for Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,”which features tea cups. I sent it to my word group for today’s moment of pause, during our tea cleanse. What if our molecules could remember when we were one? This morning, on our church’s Zoom call, my older daughter spoke movingly, and it sparked something in others, and things felt, briefly, hopeful.
Ugh. I hate everything about this drawing (almost everything). I spent today working on the first of two grant applications — painful writing. I’m tired, but that’s not the problem. The problem is a chronic pain issue that flares from time to time; like now. I drew a sad and ugly figure staring blankly at her cellphone, and then began to add in other tiny versions of me, trying to help the blue woman, soothe her, sit with her, check in on her. Plus there are those weird green legs lying on the floor. The whole time I was drawing, it felt like an argument with myself.
While waiting at the back of a long line outside a lab, I saw a woman break down when it was her turn to enter the building, and nurses from inside came out to help; I was too far to figure out what exactly was happening. The woman in front of me, who had come on her lunch break, finally gave up and left, she said she couldn’t keep waiting and waiting. I thought of her, for some reason, while doing kundalini this evening; it’s so novel to speak to anyone outside my family. I hope she’ll get in quickly when she goes tomorrow morning.
I took notes at an X Page meeting on Zoom this afternoon to plan for the smooth running of our spring workshop (season 3!!). I looked crusty and ancient on the screen. CJ forgot to do his piano lesson (also online) because I was in the meeting and wasn’t available to remind him. Instead, he was watching soccer highlights with Kevin in the living-room!! He was very sad when he told me he’d forgotten, just before supper. I sent a message to apologize to his piano teacher and she offered to do a lesson with him tonight. After drawing this, I was glad I hadn’t quit the project on Monday. (My plan is to review month-by-month, rather than committing to a particular length of time in advance; I think I’ll know when it’s served its purpose.)
I’m doing a lot of kundalini this week. I’d gotten a half-start on this drawing just before this evening’s class started, and while meditating, I kept thinking about what I wanted it to express. I spent this afternoon continuing work on grant-writing for this project I’ve started with my Grandma. In this drawing, I’m a ghost in the room, a time-traveller, observing, imagining a scene from someone else’s life — which never happened, mind you — but now feels as though it is real (to me).
I asked my younger daughter if I could go with her on her lunchtime dog walk. I haven’t been out during daylight much this week. There was a big snow storm last night. My older daughter went out and shovelled out walk. I worked on grant applications and X Page stuff all day. Never napped, though the hope of a nap was what got me out of bed this morning. Too much sitting. More kundalini tonight.
This is a visualization of my word of the year — SOURCE. It’s a mysterious word. It points to being at the origin, and to being inexhaustible, I can return again and again, drink of it, seek it, it refreshes, restores. I had a vision during kundalini last night of SOURCE as eternity, as the place from which I came and to which I will return. It was soothing. Today, I’m weighing another volunteer opportunity that’s arisen. I like being asked to serve. I feel most at home when volunteering; and I miss that from my soccer coaching, for sure. But any commitment needs weighing. I won’t commit unless I’m all in.
Last night at dinner, I asked how everyone was doing right now. Our eldest said it’s fine, but it’s boring. Every day is busy, he said, and passes quickly, but it feels the same. And I agree. And therefore, I see the usefulness of this daily cartoon project is its ability to capture, succinctly, visible to the eye, proof of tiny fluctuations within the sameness.