“Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – an empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.” — Mary Oliver, Our World
Category: Word of the Year
Sunday morning. Family reading by the fire. The French horn being practiced, drowning out the radio. Smoothies and eggs for breakfast. I’m sitting in comfy pants at my desk looking at photos I took yesterday afternoon out in the wintry countryside, for my brother and sister, who are the band Kidstreet.
I got up early every morning this past week, but not on the weekend. I wrote every day.
I write during the day, but because my working hours are foreshortened due to children arriving home from school, or music lessons, I’m always looking for additional time slots, especially useful if I’m in the flow of a project; less useful if I’m trying to manufacture a scene or story from scratch. On Tuesday I took my laptop to gymnastics and wrote, and on Friday I took my laptop to soccer practice and wrote. I even took my laptop to piano lessons, and wrote, although that was more of a challenge, as I had bored children waiting on the bench beside me, angling for snacks and chat. I couldn’t use the ear plugs I usually do, while writing. (I even use ear plugs when I’m home alone with the dogs in the middle of the day; it’s a physical cue that helps me focus.)
On Friday, I had a fascinating correspondence with my Dutch translators, who sent over a series of questions about the nuances of words and phrases in Girl Runner.
The coming week will be different, as I’ve got three book club appearances on three consecutive evenings — two involve a meal in a restaurant for a book club called “An Appetite for Reading.” Will I be able to get up early every morning? I’m going to try. But no running. I was going to say, no running, sadly, but you know, I have to accept where my body is at, and be grateful that I’ve got options: spinning, yoga, swimming, walking, strength-training. I tried doing run/walk intervals this week, and the pain re-appeared immediately. It had been gone, even through heavy spinning and swimming, so it appears to be running-induced. Which means that for now, I’m a runner in spirit only … religiously doing my physio exercises and testing out running shoes on the treadmill, while walking and writing. (Ironically, I just got a new gig testing running shoes for a running magazine and boxes of shoes keep arriving at the door.)
And now, I think it’s time to write a poem, before another Sunday morning vanishes. Piano being practiced. Swim lesson prep has begun. Ear plugs in.
One of my editors asked whether I’d be willing to be interviewed by her daughter, who is 16 and an aspiring writer. I’m totally recycling and being efficient, but I’m thinking there might be others out there with similar questions (or, if you’re a writer yourself, other answers): here is our exchange.
1. What is the best part about being a writer?
If you love to write and to read, if you love language, if you love living in the imagination this is the best job in the world. When I sit down at my desk, I never quite know what’s going to happen, so every day feels like an adventure. There’s something magical about using text to communicate complex ideas, to share imaginary characters, places and times with readers, and perhaps most exciting and daunting is the ability to draw emotion out of a reader — to cause someone to feel something simply by giving them words on a page.
There are many ways to be a writer — that might be something you want to think about, as you consider a career as a writer. I primarily write literary fiction, but I’ve also worked as a freelance writer, writing reviews, doing more journalistic non-fiction and memoir-type non-fiction (for newspapers, magazines, and online).
2. What is the worst part about being a writer?
There are many worst parts, to be perfectly frank.
Right up front, let’s be honest about money: writing is a tough career in which to make a living. Many (most?) literary writers survive on grants and small advances, or paid appearances; or they write freelance, which requires lots of networking, pitching, and constant scrabbling to keep steady work coming in the door; or they teach creative writing; or they have day jobs.
It takes years of practice to hone talent, and to master the craft to a degree that you can make these words do what you want them to do. (Of course, that’s also an exciting part — there is always more to learn; I’m still learning!) Especially during the early years of being a writer, you face a lot of rejection. You either accept this as a natural part of the job, carry on, and try to learn from critique, or you’ll become despairing. You’ll need to grow a thick skin to protect yourself, which is hard, because most writers are sensitive people — attuned to emotional nuance. Even established writers face rejection, self-doubt, and criticism. It’s part of the job.
Personally, I find it difficult to move between the quiet interior work of actually writing to the necessity of publicity, when a book comes out — readings, appearances, panels, interviews, etc. Public speaking draws on a different part of my personality, and I find I operate better if I’m in one mode or the other, not trying to do both at once. That isn’t always possible to arrange.
I think one thing that isn’t often admitted is that writers are plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. This is not something you outgrow. I’ll never be absolutely certain that I’ve achieved what I intended to with my work — in fact, I think I’m quite certain that I haven’t, and never will. I don’t mean that I feel like a failure, or that I’m not happy with what I’ve created; just that I always believe it could be better.
But I don’t write simply to create a finished product. I write because I love the process itself. And I write always with a good deal of hope and optimism that I’ll achieve something new and different in each project I undertake.
3. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Read books that challenge you, books that teach you the long history of writing that we’re all building on, books that you admire. Read the writing you yourself would want to write. Don’t worry about losing your voice or not being original. If you write regularly you will develop and find your voice. I recommend writing as widely as you read, too. Write daily. Every bit of writing counts and can teach you something. Write in a journal. Write poetry in the margins of your school notes. Write academic essays. Write for your school newspaper. Write a blog. (This advice is based entirely on my own writing path: I took English lit in university, BA and MA, and filled journal upon journal with thoughts, dreams, stories, ideas, poems, etc. I still write every day, whether it’s writing for publication, or just for myself.)
4. What is the one thing that you would like to achieve through writing?
I don’t think I can narrow my hopes down to one particular achievement. I use my writing to communicate many different things, in different ways, in different forms. I would like to entertain readers, to catapult them into a parallel world, and take them out of their lives for a little while. I would like also to pour empathy into the world. Beauty and light, stories that may cause readers to look at their own lives differently, or to look at others differently. I do think about this. I think about what I’m putting into the world when I write. I want to add depth and understanding to human interaction, not subtract from it or be harmful. I try to write with an openness of spirit and heart and mind — and I try to live that way too.
5. Why do you think writers are important to society?
Words are powerful tools. Ideas can be powerfully communicated through them. I have a theory that all conflict and therefore the possibility of peace boils down to two ingredients: land and stories. Land is obvious: humans have been fighting over land (resources, territory, wealth) since the beginning of human history. Stories are less obvious, but no less important: a nation’s stories about itself can include or exclude, bury or illuminate, and these stories are narratives about belonging and power. All stories are. Maybe I’ll go back to your previous question and say that if I hope to achieve anything with my writing, it would be to illuminate stories that have been forgotten or left untold.
But I’m also interested in narrative and emotional complexity rather than myth-making: this complexity is usually lost in policy-making and politicking generally, and I think that’s where writers come in. Writers are not politicians. It’s our job to show the complexity of individual human experience. It is only by seeing “the other” as complex that we see him or her as human, which is a necessary imaginative leap toward understanding.
Here it is, in all its simplicity. My word of the year for 2015: WRITE.
(Because you don’t do enough of that already, said one of my WOTY friends last night. But you know what? I don’t, exactly.)
I’ve chosen WRITE, in its variations, both the active verb, to write, and the noun or subject, writing. I want to explore this calling of mine, if it is indeed my calling. Mainly, I want to do it—to write! I want what I do this year to be in service to my writing. I want, also, to examine what makes good writing so that I can teach it better.
If I get to the end of the year, and feel like I’ve wasted my time or not applied myself, or been in some way made very unhappy by the pursuit of writing for itself, for its own end, then I will re-examine my calling, such as it is. Perhaps there is a greater purpose to which I should be applying myself.
But for now, this year, I want to live in my imagination and write fiction, specifically. Work with intensity, patience, and discipline.
I’ve allowed myself a back-up word, a tagline or footnote, if you will, and that is: ATTENTION. ATTENTION feeds into WRITE. I want to pay attention to the way I’m spending my time. And if attention comes my way, I want to receive it with grace, humility, and thanks, as food that feeds my writing life.
I feel strongly that this year will be about paring down, cutting out what feels wasteful or unnecessary, not trying to squeeze so much in, and focusing instead on the richness in a long-held moment—like playing a series of whole notes rather than eighth or sixteenth notes. It might appear boring on the surface. Much of the pleasure may be taking place way down deep, rather than visible in the exciting places visited or activities raced through. The adventure is in the mind: that is what it means to write.
I think it’s like doing a puzzle.
Or practicing yoga. Or following the long arc of a story.
This year I’m going to spend more time holding the long notes. Talking. Jamming on instruments. Napping, even.
The adventure in the mind is supported by a framework of routine and discipline, which is healthy, spiritually nurturing, and makes a body strong. I love my routines. I feel so comforted by them, supported in them. I look forward to what they offer me, even when I don’t feel like setting my alarm early.
This morning, for example, I stretched in front of the fire in the dark living-room, with chants playing in the background. I was frozen solid from my walk with Nina; we’d decided to cut it short when we started losing feeling in important body parts. As I stretched myself toward warmth, in the dark, I was taken by the comfort of the dark. This is a dark time of year, but in the dark the mind goes quiet, listens inward, has time to rest and reflect.
PS Are you choosing a word of the year? If so, and you’re willing, please share it in the comments. I would love to hear what you’re working on this year.
Tonight, I’m meeting with my Word of the Year friends. This will mark nearly a decade of participating in this ritual. I’m not positive I can remember all of the words chosen, but here are most of them, from oldest to newest: Create. Imagine. Spirit. Heart. Work/Play. Stretch. Success.
Success was my most recent word: the word for 2014. Chosen in anticipation of a big year career-wise; chosen because I realized that I was terrified and strangely ashamed by the idea of Success, and I wanted to explore why. I tried, but didn’t dig very far into the why. Maybe that would have required therapy. But I dug deep into the idea of Success and its meanings, its definitions, and learned that it’s very personal. There are external markers of Success that we tend to rely on: how much we earn, what we own, how much recognition we receive for our efforts.
Conversely, there are internal markers of Success that no one else will ever see or recognize. These are your values. What matters to you. What you care about. And it may just be that what you care about doesn’t align perfectly with what the world cares about.
That’s good to know. It helped me during this year to separate my own hopes and disappointments and dreams from the hopes and disappointments and dreams out there.
It was a good year, there’s no doubt about it. What I remember best and value most are the friendships and connections. New connections, ongoing friendships, give and take, small adventures. Fun. I’ll remember a gathering of friends and family in my living-room, singing and playing on the night I turned 40. I’ll remember skiing with a friend in the bitter cold last winter; and with the kids too. I’ll remember the generosity of friends hosting and feeding me in London, England last spring. And being part of the Published-A-Book-In-Canada Class of 2014 on tour this past fall. Looking back, it’s the people, I see.
I’m good with that definition of Success: not as a popularity contest, but as the formation of real bonds, strong connections.
Think of those throngs of people marching in Paris yesterday. To my mind, that is Success: an outpouring of collective, peaceful strength.
Up next: word of the year, 2015. Stay tuned.
If you notice I’m writing here a little less frequently, it’s due to writing elsewhere a little more frequently. On balance it all equals out, although the other things I’m writing don’t receive instant publication.
It feels really really good to be writing, especially new fiction. It’s so deeply satisfying to my brain. Like scratching a hard to reach itchy spot, or discovering a stretch that eases a tensed muscle.
I’ve been reflecting more deliberately this month on my word-of-the-year, which is SUCCESS. Such a daunting word to take on, yet it keeps calling out to be wrestled with. Any change in identity causes disturbances within the self, even positive change, even success. Even the meaning of success changes depending on the kind of day I’m having. It’s really personal. I also find myself rolling over the idea of how much a person can change, fundamentally, throughout a lifetime. Do the same insecurities that arose in childhood continue to affect my behaviour and choices now, or am I wise enough to stand counter to the pettier of the emotions and weigh my reactions rationally? I don’t have the answer to that.
On instinct, I continue to do the things that ground me. I set the alarm early. I run. I read. I spend time with friends. This weekend I also baked. In fact, I went on a baking tear yesterday afternoon. Kevin was out most of the day with the older kids at two separate soccer events, and therefore I was home alone with the younger ones, who still need supervision. For a fruitless hour around noon, I kept trying to arrange their happiness so that I could go into my office and work. Best-case scenario involved being interrupted every few minutes with reports from CJ’s latest invented back-yard soccer match, while Fooey and friends played tea party with soapy water in her bedroom.
So I capitulated. I picked up the cards I’d been dealt. I wandered into the kitchen and remembered baking. Remember baking? I used to bake all the time. Then the oven broke right before Christmas and by the time it got repaired, two months later, I’d kind of forgotten all about it. But yesterday I remembered. I now know why I used to bake so often — because it gave me the satisfaction of being productive while looking after young children. I tuned in to CBC Radio, tied on my apron, and went to town. First, Fooey and friend and I baked brownies from a box. Then they went outside to play, and I carried on, sans boxes. I baked granola bars, I baked granola, I baked mac & cheese, and I baked bread. The afternoon turned to evening, Kevin texted me updates from the soccer sidelines, the radio kept me company, and it didn’t feel like an intrusion when CJ ran in and out of the kitchen to report on The Crushers vs The Avalanches of Doom, both teams of ducks, he said, whom he was training up to play soccer.
All of this was made easier by two things: one, that I have some really heavy work to do this week, going through two sets of page proofs for Girl Runner, and I probably needed the mental break, and two, that I had gone for a long run the day before, so I figured a day of rest wouldn’t hurt.
I’m not playing soccer this summer.
I miss it already and find myself mourning for my soccer-playing self. But I can’t take the risk of getting hurt again and being unable to work or think, especially in the lead-up to this fall’s challenging workload. So to comfort myself, I’m doing more distance running. Soccer tended to beat me up at the best of times, making distance training a challenge, so I’m looking at its absence as an opportunity to run long.
I announced this intention at a family meal last Monday and my little sister literally rolled her eyes at me. I know, I know. This is my idea of fun? And comfort? But it makes me feel good. Grounded. Strong. Present.
It’s what I need. I’m going on instinct here.