I often set myself a project that spans the full year. This year, I’m considering chronicling my daily writing life, but I haven’t figured out how best to frame it. Should I keep it short, as in a daily tweet? Today’s would read something like …
Tired, late night @ Edna King’s show in Guelph. Writing group cancelled this AM; I miss them, we haven’t met in a month. Fell asleep on couch reading Song of Achilles. Drew self-portrait, wrote What’s on Your Mind + blog post. Next, continue revising new novel. #writinglife
But in all honesty, one day is going to look a lot like the next, and a tweet has limited space for the animating details.
The long-form version of today’s chronicle goes something like this …
Today, I’ve been staggering around like a zombie after getting 4 hours of sleep last night; not conducive to clear-headed composition. I went to my sister’s show last night, an intense experience (EDM) that sent me into a form of dance/trance, which I spent thinking about my character, Bess, from the new novel I’m writing, set in the 16th century. My eyes were closed much of the time, and I kept gazing into my mind’s eye for Bess, trying to see what she was seeing: the image of darkness and enclosure, the image of an open night sky.
I’m reading Song of Achilles, historical fiction, and this morning, I fell asleep within ten minutes of picking up the book.
I was disappointed that my writing group meeting was cancelled again, as we’ve struggled to find time to meet this year. Our aspiration is to meet every other week, but we’ve only gotten together once in 2020 due to illness, travel, and other meetings and complications. I look forward to those mornings so much. It’s one of the only spaces where I have neither need nor compulsion to explain anything about #writinglife. We’re all in the industry, struggling, staying hopeful, doing the work, and encouraging and believing in each other. I’m missing that medicine.
While walking the dog, I thought about this blog post. I thought: what if I were honest, publicly, about this path I’m on? I’m giving myself a year; one year, in which to research and write with full commitment. January was blissful. I spent many hours of many days simply sitting and writing. It was blissful and it was filled with anxiety. I also sent out six grant applications at the beginning of last month, and four were rejected earlier this week. Truth! Ugh! Painful! Shameful! Humiliating!
But, on the other hand, also in January, I learned that my short story, “16-Century Girl,” published last winter by The New Quarterly, had been submitted for a National Magazine Award.
And, I filled another notebook! I’m working on two separate and very different fiction projects. One is historical fiction, and I’m close to completing a first draft (“close to completing” could mean 6 weeks or 6 months, or even longer). The other project is very new, and I’ve only been working on it for a few months; too new to discuss, though it does have a name: I’m calling it Two Women. I work on Two Women by hand, composing with pen and paper, and I’ve filled three notebooks so far. I’m working on Bess in Scrivener, and I’m composing it as if amassing a great heap of loose scraps, writing forward until I reach the end.
This week, I reached an end, of sorts, for Bess, and started back at the beginning, preparing for a slow, careful, thorough revision by setting up the Scrivener file beside a Word doc with the same text, and going through line by line, scene by scene, deleting, rewriting, composing new scenes. Don’t ask me why I’m taking this route. I’m writing this novel completely on gut instinct and dream-like visualization. The manuscript is short but dense. I’m curious to see whether it wants to be fleshed out further, or whether its structure and tone demands that it remain short and dense.
Also while walking the dog, I had a thought about the auto-fiction short story collection I’ve mostly completed; could each story be punctuated by one of my 4-panel cartoons, as a way of creating a breath between the stories, which are heavy and kind of demanding, and I don’t think anyone would want to sit down and read them all at once? Something needs to ease the transition between stories; maybe the meditative cartoons I’ve been drawing would fit there?
So that’s today, as of 2:03PM. As soon as I press publish on this blog post (if I do indeed decide to publish it), I’m setting up Bess in the side-by-side format, to work through whatever scene comes next. I have to pick up kids at 2:45, but I can return home and keep working on Bess till it’s time to make supper.
The other writing I’ve done today was in my notebook. As is my habit, I answered the question: What’s On Your Mind? as a means of dumping out surface anxieties before getting to work. I also drew a self-portrait — dancing last night — to Lizzo’s “Juice”.
Lastly, I will report that I continue to wait, with seemingly perpetual hope, patience, and possibly delusional optimism, to hear from my agent about two completed manuscripts (one for children, one for adults). Would you like to wait with me? We could be here awhile. But in the meantime, while I wait, I’ll be writing and dreaming and writing and dreaming, in full-on bliss, stealth-attacked by anxieties, and holding dear to prayers and visions. Truth.
My word of the year is MANIFEST.
I chose this word despite feeling discomfort about its complexity, and despite recognizing that I don’t completely understand its multiple meanings nor how the word will be useful in shaping or framing my outlook this year.
Sometimes a word just wants to be used. This word kept coming up. I kept seeing it and hearing it. And it arrived with a clear image. A manifestation is what’s visible. To make manifest is to show. Within the word is its reason for being, its implicit shadow: everything that is latent, hidden, unconscious, unseen, unknown and mysterious under the surface. The image I see is of surfacing. I’m in a deep body of water, carrying an offering to the surface. My offering is small, no bigger than a grain of sand, and I have a long way to go from the ocean floor to the open sky. But I enjoy the work. I’m swimming happily toward the surface with my grain of sand. When I pop through, I’ll float on the surface for a little while, resting, holding my grain of sand up to the sky in case a bird wants to carry it away. It won’t be long till I dive down to the bottom, again, to find another grain of sand.
Something that is manifest is readily perceived by the senses; it is what’s shown.
A manifestation can also mean the spiritual made real.
There are things that are declared, or announced, before they spring into being; to make manifest is to bring into being that which did not exist. My life’s work, I think. Because I also believe that what isn’t yet seen does exist, just not in tangible form. My life’s work is to go underground and surface, again and again.
When I frame my work as a spiritual quest rather than a career, it makes sense in a way that soothes and comforts me. It makes sense in a way that other framing does not and never has; I’m left cold and anxious, seething with envy and practical concerns, when I try to frame my work as a career, something that is transactional in nature, something I do in order to receive something in return—money, success, fame, or even simply a decent living. Nope. That’s asking my work to be something it fundamentally isn’t.
Accept what is before you. Be led. Open pathways for others, but don’t be angry or worried or dissatisfied if the path you see for them is not the path they see for themselves.
A story should call us, should lead us, we should follow it; if we’re dragging that story behind us like a dead weight, we know it’s not alive. It makes sense to me to visualize and live my life, as much as is possible, in this way—being called, following where I’m being led, whether or not it makes sense or is logical or dutiful or practical or immediately rewarding. I can’t know what I’m making. I can’t know what I’m doing in the moment of doing it. I’m just swimming, swimming, swimming toward the light carrying this little grain of sand.
After a summer to reflect on The X Page workshop and its reverberations, our ad hoc collective is preparing for a second season, with new workshop sessions starting in January, 2020.
In connected news, I’ve been freshening up my website, and have built a new page devoted to The X Page — please visit, look around, share. We are currently in the process of seeking candidates for the next season, so if you’re in the Waterloo Region, and you’re interested or know someone who might be, send them here.
The original project was a lot of work, there was no way around that conclusion, and many of us felt burnt-out following the final performance. Our discussions this summer circled around how to make the project sustainable for all involved, and we began to define the different leadership roles with more specificity, create a long-term plan for funding, and identify elements from the original production that could be revised or reframed. We also wanted to make space within the workshop for former participants to return in leadership roles.
For the 2020 season, The New Quarterly literary magazine has taken over a number of administrative tasks and responsibilities, which frees me and Lamees (who co-coordinated the first workshop with me) from much of the grinding effort necessary to get the project off the ground. I’m excited to be the production’s “stage manager,” a role which I rather accidentally filled last time around (and loved!), while Lamees will be working more directly with candidates during the recruitment process. I’m thankful for our ongoing conversations with Pamela Mulloy, the editor of The New Quarterly — and with others — as we continue to learn from and develop this project. This is not a static process.
Personally, it’s been a gift from the universe to be able to work on a project that combines so many of my interests, including Lynda Barry’s life-changing exercises (the “X page” of the workshop’s title), multi-disciplinary creative team-work, and the power of personal storytelling. I’ve got a running theory that the antidote to (and inoculation from) xenophobia, misogyny, and fear of others’ cultures, religions, and beliefs, is immersion in stories. You can’t sit with someone and listen to their stories without being changed in some way. Especially the particular stories that emerge from Lynda Barry’s X Page — stories that may on their surface appear ordinary, every day, but therein lies their power: X Page stories are rich with sensory detail, evoking images that transfer from speaker to listener, images that pull us directly into another human being’s experience. Being part of this process, through the workshop, is powerful.
Please spread the word.
Here I sit, Monday morning, trying to distill my thoughts into a package tidy enough to make sense. I’ve been reading “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” by Jenny Odell, which is not the type of book I usually manage to wade all the through; non-fiction seems to take me a long time to process, especially when it’s offering new ideas or new ways of looking at the world. Odell uses stories from her own life and experience to analyze different forms of attention, and different ways of being in community with others: with humans, with animals and birds, with ecosystems, with any animate or inanimate being that exists within our particular intersection of time and space.
Here’s a quote that jumped out at me, as I read this morning (Oh, yes, I’m trying to start every weekday/work morning by reading a book): “A community in the thrall of the attention economy feels like an industrial farm, where our jobs are to grow straight and tall, side by side, producing faithfully without ever touching. Here, there is no time to reach out and form horizontal networks of attention and support—nor to notice that all the non-“productive” life-forms have fled.”
Immediately, I thought of my life as a contract lecturer: how lonely it was. How, when I asked an administrator how many other contract lecturers there were at the university and whether there would be some way to reach out to others, to attempt to form a community, share stories (and possibly even to organize for better working conditions), I was told that no one knew how many lecturers there were, and that there was no easy way to identify and contact others who shared my situation.
How many people work jobs like this, now? Part-time, contract, isolated, without benefits or protection, jobs with no guarantee of future contracts, temporary, often with baffling administrative or online systems to learn and negotiate, no set hours, and workloads that creep outside the boundaries of what we’d thought we’d signed on for, our value measured by anonymous evaluations. “Producing faithfully without ever touching.”
It’s a recipe for burn-out. In my experience, it’s not a sustainable way to live a life. But this isn’t a post about disappointment. Because the next thought that came into my mind was how different life can be, if you have the ability (and privilege) to step away from “producing faithfully” and turn instead toward the networks of attention, support, and all the non-“producing” life forms that continue to exist. What am I willing to sacrifice in order to afford a different pace, a different way of being in the world?
Most obviously, I’m willing (and temporarily able) to sacrifice a regular paycheque. I’m willing to live with more risk, to invest time into projects that are underway or unfolding, but not yet profitable (and which may never be profitable). I’m willing to live with uncertainty. I’m willing to live in a nebulous zone of invisible productivity where others may not understand what I’m doing, or why. I’m willing to give up status and authority. I’m willing to *not* be too busy. I’m willing to say no. I’m willing to protect my time to go for walks, to read books, to draw, to write, as fiercely as I would any task deemed important or productive. I’m willing to work inefficiently.
Do I squander my time when I cook a meal from scratch? Is it a waste to go for a walk with the dog and notice trees, birds, other dogs, to stop and talk to neighbours out walking with small children and dogs? Is napping wasteful? I think most would agree that, no, these things are not wasteful; and yet, I feel a shame and guilt as I write this, because there are so many people expending their time and energy to do and achieve big things, or just to survive. Cooking, walking, resting, stopping seem like luxuries only a few can afford. I wonder: is that true?
One final thought, arising from this quotation: how necessary, how critical, how important to our survival as a species is the collective—the opposite of being alone, or being isolated from others who would both support and challenge us. Odell writes about how the self is not, in fact, a fixed property, even if algorithms may insist on its fixedness, and how boring life becomes when our likes and dislikes are made to seem predictable. In fact, we need to know and care about others who aren’t like us: to expand our understanding and empathy, to help us see in new ways, to live interesting lives.
Maybe that’s all I’m after: a life that interests me, not because it’s full of drama, excitement, glamour, but because its fundamentals are present to me in the smallest ways, the most mundane places, the simplest interactions. Fundamentals: birth, death, relationships, conflict, love, beauty, pain, the air, the ground, the sounds, my material self, the spirit. And so here I sit, recommitting to the responsibilities that I’ve decided matter to me; alone, but not feeling alone. Thinking of groups of people with whom I’ve formed bonds; thinking about what it means to be on a team; thinking about everything else, animate and inanimate, that is present with me in this time and this space.
Unrelated to this post, but worthy of an update via caption: our team won the cup final to cap off our season.
Saturday morning. Nowhere to be, nothing to do. Reading the paper, talking to kids, braiding someone’s hair, letting the dog in and out and back in again. Drinking coffee.
A flash of an idea for a new project skitters through my mind. I see myself, on a morning when the children are all in school and I’m alone, sitting at this same table, notebook open, exploring the idea, following the surprising places it could take me, just like I did at Lynda Barry’s workshop.
A counter-thought arises instantly: What would be the point?
Virtually every day, this tiny interior voice of judgement natters anxiously inside my head: What’s the point?
This morning, almost as instantly, a rebuttal: None of your damn business. Just do the work.
“None of your business.” -Lynda Barry
I think, in some profound way, this mantra is the foundation of Lynda Barry’s workshops and teaching; it’s why I knew I needed to go back again this summer, to drink from her clean, clear well of wisdom. You can waste a lot of time not making the perfect thing you think you should be making. “At a certain point, the question of good or bad becomes obscene,” she says. Placing value and expectations on the thing you are making, a something that communicates in images, that communicates, period, is obscene. Further to that, it’s not up to you to decide.
This is a hard lesson to absorb. And ever-useful.
What is this thing I’m making? What does it mean? What does it matter? Is it good? Do I like it?
None of your business. None of your damn business.
The thing you’re making is its own separate entity. It’s not you. It’s alive in its own way. And it can only exist if you make it. So make the flawed something that wants to made. Get out of your own way. What’s the point? None of your business. Repeat as often as needed.
Not every day is a good day.
There are days when you will feel lesser than your usual self. Days when you will wonder what this darkness is you’re carrying and whether you’ll have the patience and the courage to dig into it, and maybe unearth it, learn from it.
You will feel like you have nothing to offer. Yet you will go on offering, as if pulling scarves from your sleeve, rabbits from your hat.
You will wonder at the raw stupidity of your own ambition. You will be infuriated by your flurries of self-delusion. Who did you think you were?
You’ll go for a run, trying to run out your misery, like it could be wrung from you like sweat. You won’t know who to blame. You’ll be all out of scapegoats, so you’ll turn on yourself and say, You, it was you all along, you and your inflated imagination.
And you won’t know what to say in return.
You’ll forget how to be kind to yourself. The mirror will show you failure and worse — self-pity. You’ll feel sick with nerves. Worthless. Empty, vacuous.
You’ll wonder: Is this depression?
You’ll wish you’d never started down this road. If you could go back in time — ah, but you’ll know. You’ll know that even if you could go back in time, you wouldn’t be able to tell yourself not to try, not to imagine, not to do the work. You’ll know this is part of the cycle, part of the deal. You’ll know it actually doesn’t matter how good or bad you are at this thing you’ve chosen to do, and that’s the trouble, that you’re going to keep doing this, this thing, for the rest of your life, and there’s nothing else for it.
You’ll need to pick yourself up, scrape yourself off, and pull yourself together. You can’t diagnose yourself. You can only write about it. Writing is what you’ve got. Even if, today, it means nothing to you.
Even if this is one of those days, one of those anxious, splintering days.
Tomorrow it might mean something again.
And if it doesn’t, wait till the next day. And the next day. You’re imagining an enormous crater where your dreams used to be, but even at the very bottom of that crater, you’ll poke around and find something to entertain you, console you, and keep you alive.
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