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.”
this morning, my thoughts do not settle on any one subject. instead, my mind flits like a bee from flower to flower, or like a fallen leaf blown and tumbling across the frozen grass. I am quite content. this is the third consecutive morning I’ve gotten to sit and write. that is all. the house is quiet and there would be quite a list of things to do, should I care to seek out things to do, what with the holidays fast approaching; but I’m not doing those things. I’m doing just one thing. I’m sitting and writing (and occasionally, also, drawing). I have been trying to make this possible for a long time, and while it may be possible this week, or for a few days this week, it is not possible most of the time. I’ve been asking myself: what would you do, if you could just sit and write? and I think the answer is: I would sit and write.
what would I write? that could only be discovered upon the writing of it.
I’ve been thinking about how we, as humans, seek fixes and cures from a variety of sources. my own fix and cure is writing, first and foremost, though my list would also include hard-core exercise, meditation, prayer, faith, song, poetry, drawing, and being with people I love. what are we trying to fix and cure? what am I trying to fix and cure? do we need reassurance that our lives matter, that there is a meaning or a solution to pain?
this past weekend, I was feeling resentful, thinking of how everything I’d done had been for someone else — nothing for myself. and then I thought: good grief, that’s life, Carrie! the point of being alive is to do things for others, not just yourself! that is what brings peace, comfort, contentment. and it’s hard. it requires work, maybe even sacrifice. but it’s the best fix, the most reliable cure.
does my struggle to see writing, specifically my own writing, as a fruitful act, relate in large part to this? — that writing feels like a selfish undertaking (because I love it so much), an indulgence, of benefit to me specifically, and to no one else in particular, and I can’t get behind that idea with conviction. so I’m constantly thinking, instead, as I did in church on Sunday, of other uses for my writing skills: I could write and deliver sermons, I thought; I could do the children’s story, I’m good with kids. this fiction-writing business, what’s it for? am I using it a disguised form of personal therapy? and if so, isn’t that the opposite of treating it as art?
(I want to treat my writing as art.)
there is and remains a desire to take my work and to share it, somehow. that’s the missing piece (is that the missing piece?). I crave connection. I am not a child. I want to play, but also to build something lasting. do these two desires fit together — the desire to play and the desire for a stable outcome? a child’s fort gets knocked down. she was kind of bored of it anyway, something she hadn’t even noticed until the blankets had been folded and put away. in the newly empty space, she begins playing again, imagining something new. there is a rigidity to adult systems. we want monuments. we want permanence. by god, we fight against our transitory state of being on this earth. but maybe what’s beneath all of that is not merely the obvious, not just fear of death and extinction, but also a craving to connect, to cement our connections with others over time. a child is content to play with a child she’s never seen before and will never see again; the richness for her is contained entirely in the moment. I am not a child. but I need to play like a child in order to write. and I need to build on my work like an adult in order to keep writing.
what have I accomplished in 2018? I’ve got no publications to point to, no evidence, no proof of achievement. just notebooks full of cartoons and scribbles, a manuscript of worked and reworked stories, and the kind words of students who’ve passed through my classroom this year. enough? perhaps I’m most proud that I’ve kept at the work itself — the play. I can’t point to the monument of publication, but I’ve been constructing something else, less rigid, but perhaps more lasting. I’ve turned the soil (metaphorically, you understand) on a garden patch where my writing can grow and thrive alongside the writing of peers and friends. if writing is my gift as well as my obsession and my fix, my cure, I want to share it, not simply by publishing, but also by playing in the moment (alone; and with others). mentorship stretches in many directions; a system of mentorship is not fixed or rigid and I need both to mentor and to be mentored. these are the structures I’ve sought out, to build and to nurture — my accomplishments in 2018: I’ve given myself this morning, and the promise of many more mornings just like this one.
to sit and write.
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.
Title: poem excerpt by Rilke, drawings by Carrie
Captions: No one lives her life. We come of age as masks. / Our true face never speaks. / Somewhere there must be storehouses where all these lives are laid away. / Maybe all paths lead there, to the repository of unlived things.
Observation: It is easy (and a total delight) to cartoon every day when I’m on holiday. The challenge will be to create cartoons on days when I’m spread super-thin and scarcely keeping up. It will also be a challenge to accept the cartoons that suck — or, more accurately, to move past the idea that my drawing sucks while I’m drawing. This will be good practice in flipping the switch, like Lynda Barry tells us and like I tell my students: turn off that little voice that’s asking DOES THIS SUCK or IS THIS GOOD? Because you don’t know and you can’t know! Instead, tell yourself I DON’T KNOW BUT I’M DOING IT! Sometimes, when I make a glaring error in a drawing, I feel a sense of relief: it’s no longer perfect, and now I can relax and just make the thing without worrying about ruining it.
The mistake I made here was in the first panel, when I drew myself with dots for eyes, which is not my usual style.
Title: Worst sore loser
Captions: This morning we played soccer, and I was the worst sore loser. / The kids and Kevin are playing a board game. / Everyone agrees it’s better that I don’t play. / Self-awareness only goes so far in terms of self-improvement.
On this last day of this old year, I’m trying to figure out how to present my cartoon project. Process fascinates me. I love a long-term project and having completed quite a few know that the process must be simple and easy to manage. The parameters need to be strict enough to make completion challenging yet attainable. Any long-term project will test commitment, and therefore requires enough flexibility to prevent one bad day from destroying the whole task. My goal is to cartoon every day. Will I accept stick figures on a bad day? A single panel cartoon? What if I forget one day? Any long-term project also needs accountability. So I’d like to publish my cartoons throughout the year, likely here on my blog. I don’t publish every day, so I will likely weave the cartoons into weekly posts. We shall see. This is an ongoing experiment, and I am at the very beginning of it.
One of my favourite blog readers is visually impaired (Hi Kerry!), so I’m going to title and caption the cartoons in hopes that this will allow her to “see” them too.
Title: How to be a good person
Caption: Annie is doing a project today where she tries to be a good person. / She is trying mainly, as far as I can see, to pay attention to other people’s needs. / Giving of your time and attention are similar tasks. / Both are hard to do, and we spend lots of both without great thought.
What am I hoping to accomplish through this project? As with any long-term project, the excitement is in the surprise. I DON’T KNOW BUT I’M DOING IT! When I did my 365 self-portrait project, I learned how to be a subject and how to embrace the frame. I also learned the value of editing a day down to a single image. When I did my triathlon project, I discovered previously unrecognized reserves of determination, confidence, and inner strength. When I designed the creativity course last winter, I discovered the surprising joy of putting lines on a page. I learned brevity and gesture. When I write a novel, I discover whole new places and people. Ideas that are otherwise ephemeral become embodied. When I meditate for a year on a single word, the word becomes part of my being.
With this project, I’d like to become a better artist and cartoonist. I’d like to find my voice and style. I’d also like to practice a new way of holding and cherishing the daily, mundane, fleeting bits and pieces of life. I want to pay attention. I want to distill my ideas into an accessible format. But who knows? Who knows what will be accomplished? The project is the process, as it always it.
Title: I know this isn’t a job
Captions: I know this isn’t a job / But I feel so lucky that I get to make up tasks for myself, like this one / And somehow, sometimes, it turns into something real / something I can give to someone else.
PS Soundtrack for this post: Way With Words by Bahamas
1. I am eleven years old and the stadium is enormous. The track is long and hard and black and very hot. I am wearing beat-up runners, the laces dirty, and I am sure that I am amazing. The sky opens around me. I could throw up. The white lines are chalked in. After the gun goes off, we stay in our lanes until we reach a certain mark, and then we funnel in together. The stands hum with kids, teachers, some parents (not mine), and underneath the stands the light filters in stripes and the ground is wet with spilled drinks. When I run I am not afraid, only that I won’t win; I must win. Afterward, under the stands, a teacher congratulates me in a teasing way, and I am offended by his tone. Why should he act surprised? Did he not see my brilliance? The way I ran down the tall girl in grade seven, the way I opened up a lead with 300 metres to go? The way I could not, thereafter, be caught.
2. It is going to rain. I park my bike and lock it. The underside of the stands is a sticky zone of concrete splashed with soda and dripping popsicles, spilled popcorn, children in pinnies darting, and I am too late. Rushing up from underneath and out into the seats, I see her bright yellow shirt at the finish line. The race just over. I did not see her run! I can’t stop telling people, even though it disappoints them unnecessarily, how I missed the moment. The moment was there and is gone.
3. She is sturdy and wonderful and fleet and strong. She runs so hard she will throw up, crawling off to the edge of the track, afterward. She has run faster than the girls a year old, faster than every girl on the track, and with an ease and power that I am certain I could never match, nor never did match. When she stops running, two years from now, what will I do? She waits in full sunlight beside the stands while I take her picture, her eyes squinting. “Wait,” I say. “Let me take another!” But she is impatient. She doesn’t care about pictures. She is unpinned in time.
4. Last year, in grade six, I was the fastest girl in the school. I won two red ribbons racing the 800 metres (harder for me) and the 1500 metres (I could have run forever, it felt like). What has changed? The stadium is the same, the same spilled drinks under the stands, the same open sky as I step out from under the stands and into the heart of this place–grass field and oval track, little black stones, white chalk lines. I will lose the pace in the 800 metres; I won’t even attempt the 1500 metres; and in my new speciality, the hurdles, I will hit several. I won’t fall, but I won’t win. Everything is the same except for me. I shouldn’t have cut my long, long hair. I shouldn’t have gotten older. I don’t know myself at all. My capacity for suffering is diminished and I will never again win a red ribbon at a track meet.
5. There is no last track meet. There will always be more. The light will always slant through the stadium seating, the canteen will always serve popcorn and icy sugar drinks, the teachers will always tell you where to stand and remain surprised at who you are and what you can do; or surprisingly disinterested, just as irritating. There will always be safety pins to attach the coloured ribbons to your shirt, fluttering, proof of your achievements. You will always feel sick before your race. You will fight the feeling that you can’t bear to lose. You will have to live with it, live with the possibility of losing. You will sublimate your competitiveness, you will try to bury it. You will become a nice person. You will miss the uncomplicated, greedy, gritty child whose cells you have shed, entirely.
Something rather odd about my life right now is how much time and energy I devote to doing things that are outside the realm of my natural inclinations (and, I might add, training and talents). As someone who could happily hole up for hours and days, reading, researching, thinking, writing, completely in my own head, alone, I find myself surrounded by people almost constantly, and often in a position of leadership, influence, or decision-making. Writing is almost about absence, about sublimating the self to the work, but teaching, coaching and parenting require presence — and not only that, they require a presence. I can’t merely observe and reflect, I have to express my observations verbally, often immediately, without time to weigh my words, in response to whatever is happening in the moment. It’s like doing improv. Some people are born to express themselves in this way. I’ve had to learn it. I’m still learning it. I will never stop learning it. I was a shy child, a tongue-tied adolescent, happy in the company of a best friend rather than a crowd, and I’ve always preferred the scripted scene to the unscripted one. I wish I were a bigger personality, sometimes. I wish I liked tap-dancing in the spotlight.
But what can I say? I’ll just have to go on being myself.
One of my favourite professors in undergrad was so painfully shy that you almost had to strain to hear him. He lectured to a spot on the floor, or gazing out the window over our heads, caught up in his train of thought. Yet I remember him well, his gentleness and humanity. So maybe being a presence is inconsequential in comparison to simply showing up, simply being present, being yourself. Why yearn endlessly to be who we are not? Why not, instead, accept, embrace, trust and marvel at who we are, and how even with our limited capacities we are able, nevertheless, to do and be more than we could have imagined?
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing that is more than your own.