I’m sitting in my cozy office, wearing reading glasses, listening to my favourite Spotify playlist (song of the moment: “Ya veras,” by Systema Solar), office door closed because my elder daughter is practicing piano obsessively. Kids are all home from school, which makes Rose-the-pup very happy. Kevin is mid-flight to Fort McMurray for a work trip. All schools, including the universities, are closed today due to freezing rain. I started teaching more than six years ago, and today’s is the class I’ve ever missed. (Not-Humble-Brag # 1)
I’ve decided that this post’s theme is the Not-Humble-Brag.
I’m uncomfortable with bragging. But it makes me even more uncomfortable to pretend that I’m not bragging. (Side note: Why call it bragging? Why not label it differently in my own mind, as good news, and own the sharing of it?) (Side note # 2: My superstitions are kicking in strongly, as all my instincts scream: if you announce that you have good news, you will be deservedly and instantly punished with bad news!)
Okay, superstitious self, what if the Not-Humble-Brags are less earth-shattering, more like gentle observations of loveliness? Hey?
For example, I’ve got a new story in the latest edition of The New Quarterly! (Not-Humble-Brag # 2)
The story is from an auto-fiction collection I’ve been working on steadily for a rather long time, and which makes me happy every time I dip into it, to revise, edit, polish, or write a brand-new story. On Monday evening, when I was in my office marking madly, my eldest daughter came rushing in. She was glowing. She’d just read the story in TNQ — “16th Century Girl” — and she’d loved it. She said, You should just do this, Mom. You should just write. She said she’d been thinking about writers who just wrote regardless of success during their lives, just wrote anyway, no matter what, and that could be me, as she saw it. You’re such a good writer, Mom, she said.
That night, I woke in the middle of the night and wondered whether I could “just write.” Would it satisfy me? What sacrifices would be involved?
Last night, I again woke in the middle of the night. This time, I asked myself: What is your ideal career path? Who is your role model?
I remembered that for a very long time, my ideal was Alice Munro. A mother and grandmother, devoted to the short story, who dabbled in other money-earning ventures, such as a bookstore she owned with her first husband, and teaching creative writing for a year or so early in her career; but mostly, who simply sat at her table, stared out the window, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Brilliantly. When I appeared at a literary festival named in her honour, I was told that she was known as a quiet, dedicated volunteer, serving pie at community functions to people who had no idea who she was, even if they’d come to the small town hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Even before her retirement a few years ago, she rarely engaged in readings or public appearances. Add the Nobel Prize on top of that, and could there be a more romantic ideal?
Next, I thought of Grace Paley, the American short story writer, teacher and activist. Here’s what Ann Patchett writes about Grace Paley, with whom Patchett studied in university: “Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story. Grace turned out a slender but vital body of work during her life. She kept her editors waiting longer than her students. She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person.” (from “The Getaway Car,” an essay in Patchett’s This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage.)
In my mind, Alice Munro and Grace Paley don’t represent competing versions of “how to be a writer”; for both women, being a writer was not about performing as a writer, it was about doing what needed to be done. There are different ways to do this.
If I were an academic, I would keep very close track of every publication, conference, appearance, event, workshop, review, panel, and award. I discovered this lack in my own accounting last fall when a colleague and I were applying for an academic grant (a SSHRC). Creating a somewhat comprehensive CV involved picking through old calendars, emails, and boxes of clippings. The exercise was instructive, and weirdly buoying. Look at all these things you’ve done, woman! (Not-Humble-Brag # 3)
But there’s a reason I haven’t kept track of these things very well.
As a writer, what I’ve done is not as important as what I’m going to be doing. What matters is what I’m making, not what I’ve made. (I realize that’s not completely accurate; past publishing history opens doors unavailable to many, which is a privilege and not to be minimized.) But there is no tenure. No security.
To be a mid-career, mid-level literary writer is … well, it’s a form of invisibility, to be perfectly frank. It takes fortitude. It takes devotion to an idea of oneself, an aspirational self, and it takes devotion to a singular cause, which is craft. Like Grace Paley, I don’t (can’t) compartmentalize my writing from my life. And yet my life ranges rather widely and wildly. It sprawls. My attention is divided. My loves are many. If I were to “just write,” as my daughter says, what would that mean? What path am I carving, in this career my CV claims I’m building?
We were awarded the grant, by the way. (Not-Humble-Brag # 4)
Now, to spend the rest of the afternoon, this gift of unexpectedly free mid-week calm, “just writing.”
Is there a word for the tiny balls of icy-snow that form when the temperature hovers around freezing? Whatever it is, it’s blowing down from the colourless sky right now and accumulating on rooftops and pavement. Almost Christmas. Just past the darkest day of the year.
This season, I’ve noticed the lights. People put up lights every season, of course, but this is the first season that I’ve paused in real appreciation to celebrate and enjoy the beauty and poignance of this collective effort — to light the early evenings and dark long nights. I’ve paused to admire blue icicle lights blinking on an apartment balcony, and whole houses lit up with tumbling disco colours projected upward from a source planted in the ground. I’m especially fond of a giant snowman tethered in a friend’s front yard, dancing with all colours of the pastel rainbow. It’s fair to say the lights have brought me great joy.
This is a difficult time of year. It’s a difficult time to be alone, or sick, or scared, to be estranged from or apart from or without or lacking, to be hungry or cold or lost, to be in need. Absences are starker.
But light also happens.
It’s like collectively we’re signalling to each other — that we know it’s dark out here, and this may be inadequate, but we’d like to offer up a bush wrapped in garish luminescence.
Like the giant snowman tethered in my friend’s front yard, light also signals lightness, ease, relaxation, being silly, goofy, making each other laugh. All of this I wish for you. Because life isn’t an either/or construction; we can grieve in the same moment that we’re peeing our pants with laughter. And in truth, we know this all the more profoundly during this season — that light needs the dark to be seen, to truly shine and sparkle and glitter.
FIRE is my word of the year, and its many meanings are very present with me at present. On my run this morning, I thought about how a fire can be an emergency, how it can burn down a house, or raze a forest. Going through fire is a metaphor for suffering and surviving, for being tempered by a painful experience. But after a fire, the soil is enriched by ash and carbon, and new life begins to grow.
Like fire that is an emergency, loss changes the landscape. Losing Marg was like going through fire. Of course, it was also like many other things, too, because Marg was extremely generous in her dying, and did everything possible to show her love and care for us, despite how sick she was. She had clarity about what was happening, and her wisdom gave us clarity, too. The fire tempered her, and it tempered us, too.
After loss comes grief. Sometimes grief comes even before loss — as we see loss coming toward us on the horizon. Grief isn’t predictable. It doesn’t follow a set timeline. At different points this spring, I recognized that grief was my companion, and that it was helping me to set my course.
Immediately after Marg’s death, I felt like a sleepwalker, numb, too tired to think, but slowly and steadily I drifted toward a different phase of being in the world — of being in the world. I began to meditate outside in our back yard. I let myself rest. I let myself not do next to nothing; listen, pay attention, breathe. Instinctively, I gave myself space. And with space, with breath, with oxygen to feed it, my interior fire began to flicker to life again. It was in that burnt out quiet space, in the aftermath and ash, that new shoots of green began to grow. I thought about (think about) Marg all the time. She was and is present in my mind, in my decision-making. Her clarity guides me, and her willingness in life to step forward, to be responsible, to take charge and to lead.
Because fire has another meaning, too — fire as passion, as heat and light and desire. There are times when I live without noticing how I’m feeling, numbed by routine and responsibility and the relentless obligations of being a mother to four children, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer. These are times when I’m dull, ticking boxes, struggling to keep my weak flame lit. And then there are times when I’m on fire! I’m paying attention — my attentiveness becomes acute, and I can see clearly what matters and what doesn’t matter.
From a place of quiet attention, comes clarity.
I have been tempered by fire, and my sense of purpose is strengthened. This I know: to feed my spirit, to remain grounded and whole, I must live creatively. Living creatively means improvising, sometimes; it means pursuing work that may not have a financial value; it means making space for others to play too. Since Marg’s death, I’ve found myself making choices from a place that feels powerful and certain. I ask: what matters to me, and am I acting on what matters to me? Next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at church because when I saw the call for volunteers, instead of questioning the impulse, wondering whether I had the authority to speak, or the time to prepare, or the courage to stand up, I just said yes: this matters to me, and I will do it.
Another example: This spring, as I heard about protests in Nicaragua, as the situation became ever more troubling and desperate, as protestors were being killed, I wondered: Why isn’t this news being covered in the Canadian media? What can our government do to help the situation? And then I asked: Is there anything I can do? Yes! I could use my resources, skills, and contacts to write an opinion piece appealing to the Canadian government and getting this news before the public, at least to a small degree — I pitched the idea to an editor at the Globe and Mail, and wrote the piece while sitting in a tent on a rainy afternoon last weekend. I consulted with Nicaraguan contacts to ensure my facts were accurate. I sought feedback. And the piece was published in today’s Opinion section of the Globe. It’s a small act, but it’s something.
I’ve discovered something powerful about acting on what matters to me: It gives me fuel for the fire, energy to do more.
There are so many small ways to be whole, to feel whole. I don’t seek a work-life balance, because my work and life are utterly intertwined. I’m not interested in the concept of balance. I’m interested in recognizing which fires need to be fed, and which should be smothered. That’s a different kind of balance. It means asking: what do I have control over and what do I need to let go of?
A fire can burn out of control. Some emergencies cannot be prevented or stopped, can only be endured, withstood, survived, contained. But there are many smaller fires: a candle, a campfire, the flame inside a wood stove. These fires draw us, warm us, soothe us, invite community. The constantly changing shape of the flame is meditative and centring. We gather with others around the light and heat.
I hope to have more news to share in the weeks to come. More irons in the fire. More heat, more light. Meanwhile, more summer.
Oh my goodness, I’m flying off in a million different directions these days. Is this only the second week of summer holidays?? We kicked off our summer with a weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm. The heat was something else. We watched all of the World Cup games, went to the beach, performed the annual burning of the homework, lit some fireworks, chilled around the fire taking turns playing DJ, listening to our favourite songs. It was sweet.
Kevin flew off to Montreal for a couple of days last week.
Then we drove to Kingston for a soccer tournament (that’s me on the end feeling like a champion … and looking somewhat shorter than our team’s tallest players, some of whom aren’t quite 13 yet! Keep growing, girls!). In a bizarre twist, our team actually won all three of our opening games … but did not advance to the semi-finals. I’ve never seen a tournament organized like this, and hope never to see one like it again. The good news is, our team had a blast during the off-hours, plus on the field the girls played like stars, revealing inner grit and resolve and team joy, coming from behind to win each of the games. We had lots to cheer for.
I spent Sunday afternoon driving across Ontario to drop CJ at camp, where he’ll spend the week. It was a very long day, and the air conditioning in my little car DID NOT WORK. (Did I mention how hot it’s been?) Thankfully, I had a driving companion — Angus came along for the ride, and kept us entertained. We spent quite awhile making top 5 lists in the following categories: soups, salads, and sandwiches. Of course, this was over the supper hour when we were barrelling toward camp and not wanting to stop unless absolutely necessary. Discussion of our top 5 sandwiches inspired a long riff on the classic old-fashioned assorted sub. We were so hungry! Angus texted Kevin, who had already arrived home with the girls, requesting he pick us up exactly these sub sandwiches from Pepi’s, a local pizza place that Angus had heard makes good subs. Kevin kindly agreed. Then Kevin texted with the bad news: a hose had burst and the kitchen and basement were flooded.
Fortunately, this calamity had only just happened, likely less than half an hour before their arrival home. What could have been a total disaster was just a really messy cleanup (which I wasn’t too terribly sorry to have missed).
The sub sandwiches from Pepi’s were waiting when we got home … very late … The sub was exceptionally tasty. Definitely my # 1 sandwich. Also, the basement was drying out. Also, there were mountains of laundry.
In other news, the kid pictured above got her cast off. (Wrist broken in a soccer game.) But she can’t play for another couple of weeks. She is not loving her role as bench-warmer.
In other other news, I’m working on a potentially BIG project. So is Kevin! (Different projects.) I will share news when/if these projects get off the ground. I feel energized. It’s Marg. Her example was powerful, and I’m lucky to have known her — a woman who used her skills and talents and personality and time here on earth to take charge, take a stand, stand up, speak out, clear and grounded in her intentions and values. Sometimes this means walking toward conflict, rather than away. Difficult decisions, taking responsibility — this is tough stuff for those of us trained to be nice and likeable. I think we need to stop fearing conflict, fearing push-back. Our power is within us, people. I feel it when I run in the mornings. I feel it when I write. I feel it when I reach out to my community. I know what I love, I know what I believe in. I know that the world will always be troubled, there will always be weariness, grief, injustice, greed, unchecked self-interest. I can’t fix that. What I can do is respond to opportunities to be otherwise, to be the change. I remember that I started coaching soccer because I noticed no moms were coaching, and I thought that was weird and a bit sad. Why did the dads get to have all the fun? Then it occurred to me — why was I complaining about it? I could just volunteer and coach! It’s pretty simple, really. If you see something that bothers you, ask yourself: can I change this? If not, can I respond in some other proactive way?
Respond with love, not fear, at every opportunity. That’s the key.
Anxiety is not a stranger in this house.
Lately, it’s been visiting me regularly. I suppose it could be grief. It could also be the loose, unfinished nature of the work I try to do. I’ve trained myself to be patient, to trust, to allow things to unfold in their time, not to push too hard, not to rush the process. But it’s taken training because I am actually someone who appreciates a firm decision. I like to make plans and execute them. In the fuzzy existence of being a writer, plans seem forever in flux, at the mercy of whim or economics or both. I like to take action, I like to make and to do. But there is only so much I can make or do or act upon in this fuzzy existence of being a writer. If that is where I exist. If that is what I am.
Anxiety is not a stranger.
I haven’t cartooned for two days. Soccer season is upon us, and most evenings are packed and late. I haven’t shifted my routine to cartoon at another time, or even to cartoon in another fashion — by speeding up the process, or limiting my expectations, drawing faster, messier, more piecemeal. I’d come to expect something of myself in my drawings, which had become less and less like cartoons. (That sentence is written deeply in the past tense, I realize.)
Anxiety preys on expectations.
I’ve been writing. Diligently. Every day. But the project is self-indulgent. It’s all about the writing itself, language, structure, stripped down sentences, ideas, and not at all about the plot. I’m torn: do I write to please myself, or do I write to please others? I think that by pleasing myself I will please almost no one else.
Anxiety is another word for doubt. Self-doubt.
It is rainy today. I haven’t sat outside on my stump. Sometimes, the meditation soothes me, especially listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. Being outdoors soothes me. Yesterday evening, we gathered to bury the ashes of my stepmother. The beauty of where we were came rushing up to meet us. A wide softly sloping ploughed field, a stand of thick green trees. As the brief ceremony beside the grave began, I saw a hawk holding over the field, riding the air currents in a soft sloping arc.
Later, we sang: I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.
The comfort of the gospel songs felt like medicine, and made holy space, and we kept hearing a lone bird chirping in the trees overhead, as if it were joining our song.
Anxiety reminds me of all the smart, brave, kind things I should have done and did not do. Anxiety reminds me of all the wrong, stupid, foolish things I have done. Anxiety plants inertia.
Sometimes, it seems I am so closed, even to myself, that only writing will dig up what hurts. But I don’t know what hurts, if anything. I don’t know why a sensation of nervous energy froths beneath my ribs, no matter how I rise early to exercise it into submission. I wonder, what have I learned from sitting down to write this post? Perspective is a long game. Introspection comes up short.
People often ask me: Are you still writing?
I can’t help but parse the phrasing. The word still. Of course, it may appear that I might have somehow stopped writing, that I am no longer writing, because I’ve published so little since Girl Runner came out in the fall of 2014. During these past four years, it is true, I’ve published two picture books for children, a handful of short stories and essays in Canadian literary magazines, a performance piece for an arts festival in France, and these personal blog posts. That’s clearly not enough to keep the lights on, so to speak.
Are you still writing?
I understand the question. I know it’s asked out of kindness and curiosity. How to explain that writing is like breathing, for me? I could not stop. When I do stop, it will be because I’ve also stopped breathing. My life depends on this form of expression.
Are you still writing?
I am always writing, I explain. I explain, Not everything I write will be published.
I recognize that this is a painful truth. I recognize that to state this fact makes me vulnerable. We all like success stories. Painful truths we like so much less, we humans. We like winners because they win. We pity losers for losing. Is it shameful and possibly career-ending to admit: I’m trying, but I’m not living up to the standards being set? To admit: Success is out of my control? To admit: What I love doing may not be what the market wants? Some of us would prefer deception to truth. I wonder whether in the arts community, as in any career involving public scrutiny, we are more inclined to stare away the painful truths, to hide them, and perhaps this is the evolutionarily correct instinct.
Well, I’m going to tell you the painful truth anyway. I’m trying. I’m still writing.
There are problems that we have the capacity to solve with ingenuity and effort, and there are gravity problems. Gravity problems are problems that no amount of ingenuity and effort can solve: gravity just is, a force, like time, that doesn’t bend to human will.
I’ve been fortunate to shift some of my attention, these past four years, into teaching creative writing, work I’ve come to love. It is rewarding to receive immediate feedback, to test ideas live, to adventure in the company of others. Teaching is the opposite of writing literary fiction, at least in my experience. In my experience, to write literary fiction requires enormous patience, bottomless trust in one’s own instincts, and the fierce will to continue alone, for long stretches of time. It requires so much energy. All the energy comes from within. This can be hard to sustain in the absence of … I was going to say success, but I think the more accurate word is community.
There must be a better way!
This post has taken an unexpected detour. This isn’t the post I thought I was writing.
I need new fuel for the fire, that seems apparent from what I’ve written here. I’m out of steam. I’m still writing, but I’ve also given up hope. In my classroom, I strive to foster a creative community — it’s a goal that’s set and maintained and evaluated throughout the term. With deliberate effort, I make space for peers to meet, to share their work, to share the weight of vulnerability, and to learn how to offer useful critique, which is really a brave form of support.
I have never created such a space for myself. I’ve never even considered it as a possibility.
This is not a gravity problem. This is a problem that can be solved by ingenuity, effort, and most importantly, the willingness to be vulnerable.
Writing = breathing. If I hadn’t sat down this morning to write, I wouldn’t have stumbled across this discovery: what I’m feeling and experiencing can’t be solved alone. What I need is community, a writing community.