Category: Work

Updating an old dream

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When I was growing up, I planned to be a writer. I would say that I dreamed of being a writer, but that’s not entirely accurate. I did dream of it, but not in the fantastical way I dreamed of owning a horse farm or of living in a straw bale house off the grid with a homeschooled brood of offspring. Instead, I planned for it. I would become a writer. I remember a very particular moment of clarity, in my parents’ house, in the bathroom (where as a self-absorbed teenager I spent many an hour gazing into the mirror), when I declared to myself that this was what I would do: I would write books.

I aimed myself at the goal with relative consistency after graduating from high school, though I floundered around a bit, seeking the right degree (theatre? music? playwriting? history?), and it took me until I was 19 (almost 20) to declare a major and work away at it like a person possessed: English literature, of course. At night, I would compose poems on my pre-Windows laptop, eyes closed, drumming out the day’s events through my fingertips and transforming the swerving emotions and experiences into imagery, metaphor, allusion, relishing the splendor of language.

I am often asked for advice on how to become a writer. Write, is what I say. And read. Write because you love to. Write what you love. Write as often as you can, doesn’t matter what: dream journal, cooking blog, poetry scribbled in the margins. And read read read for the love of it, too.

Reading for a degree in English literature can kind of kill the love, for a few time-crunched years, pencil clutched to underline key sentences and scribble down themes for future essays and exams. Nevertheless, reading widely, reading work you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, can only be a good thing in a cumulative way. I finished the degree, applied for grants, and went happily off, like a heat-seeking missile, to do graduate work, also in English literature. I was thinking I would do a doctorate and secure myself a job. But things were looking pretty grim for doctoral candidates in English literature back then, and I swiftly grasped that there was only one valid reason to go on in my studies: if I really loved it, then yes, I should. Otherwise, it was time to thank academia for my two excellent degrees, and figure out how to become that writer I’d planned to be.

Skip ahead. Skip over the boring bits, the hours and days and months and years spent writing and reading, and, of course, believing. At the age of 29, my first book was published. It took another eight years to write a second book worth publishing. By that point, I’d lived out the reality of being a writer. I’d been home with young children for years. I’d found paid work here and there as a freelancer and “mommy blogger,” which afforded me babysitting, which afforded me writing time.

I kept circling around the question: do I want to be a writer?

Wrong question, as it turns out; misleading, distracting. I already knew the answer: yes, I wanted to be a writer, and had proven that I could be. The real dilemma, the one much harder to face, and more personally painful to articulate, was whether I wanted to continue being a practicing writer if I couldn’t make a living at it. And the answer to that, I began to recognize, was no.

Last fall, I decided to switch career paths. I applied to midwifery school. (I also worked frantically on a new novel, feeling the urgency of time ticking down.) This wasn’t a decision taken quickly or lightly. I knew what it would mean: I wouldn’t be writing books, at least for the length of the degree, possibly longer. A book is the product of time and space and does not simply appear in a burst of inspiration; it’s a long-term gamble, is what it is. That’s what being a writer is, too. And my appetite for gambling was waning. This does not seem strange to me. The timing seemed ripe for a change. My youngest would be going to school full-time. I’d put my eggs in one basket for two decades, practicing a particular craft, gaining experience and technical skill, and earning praise from peers, without ever making a living at it. In most professions, this would be a bizarre and depressing outcome: imagine a doctor with two decades of training being unable to earn a living. It would be a sign of personal failure; this would have to be an exceptionally bad doctor. But in the arts, it’s practically expected, and we all understand that, even if we don’t speak openly about it. It’s the price of admission. You get to be a writer, but it’s for love, not money.

I love writing. But I wanted to support my family. I wanted to give us some stability, to take the pressure off my husband as sole provider, and, yes, to experience the reward of working in exchange for a paycheque. It was time to a get a job-job (or, more precisely, to train for a new career). I was excited and I was ready for a change — eager, even.

And then the novel I’d been working on sold here in Canada. This happened literally on the very same day I received my acceptance letter from midwifery school. I was kind of a mess.

It felt like the intersection of two possible lives. In one, I was a writer, still doing work that would seem relatively unstable to anyone with a job-job, but many steps closer to earning a living. In this version, I would be building on the foundation I’d worked so hard to lay. In the other possible life, I was starting from scratch, a student in the process of becoming a midwife, also a long-held dream. The decision was agonizing. It took weeks of “discernment” (read: long circular conversations with friends and family; thanks, friends and family), and I questioned myself repeatedly after turning down my place in the program. But there was fresh work to be done. I rolled up my sleeves and revised my new novel. I prepared for my first teaching job.

Summer trundled by. I loved sitting my office and working all day. It felt right, as it always has. It feels right.

At last year’s Wild Writer’s Festival, I was on a panel that included Alison Pick, and she was talking about her decision to work as a writer. She recalled that she’d just been hired at a job-job when her first book sold, so she was able to turn down the job-job and keep writing, and she’s never looked back. Every time she’d start thinking, uh oh, I’m going to need a job-job, something new would come along.

As far I’m concerned, that’s living the dream. Keeping at bay that wolf at the door.

So I’m publicly updating the plan I had as a teenager staring at herself in the mirror. Seems about time. What I’m planning seems no more unlikely, delusional, or ambitious than the original dream, which was, I’ll be the first to admit, highly unlikely, delusional, and ambitious. So here goes. Dare I say it out loud? I want to be a writer whose living is sustained by her writing. I want to be a writer who keeps getting to sit in her office and write, day in, day out, day in, day out. Oh, the places I’ll go in my mind.

Experiments in expertise

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You all really liked that other colour of green, didn’t you? It’s okay, you can tell me. I can take it. I really like it, too. But it didn’t fit with my vision for the room! To use a metaphor, as I’m wont to do, it’s like editing one’s own writing: kill your darlings, is how Stephen King puts it. The point being, just because you love something doesn’t mean it fits. Sometimes you have to paint over a colour you really love, or remove a plot point that charms you, or exise your favourite sentences (actually, in writing, that is almost the rule rather than the exception. Your favourite sentences will inevitably be the ones you have to sacrifice in honour of the whole.)

Stick with your vision. This will make you happier in the end.

Yesterday, the Giller longlist was announced. I didn’t hear about it until rather late in the day, which put in perspective the difference between this year and last. Last year, I was on tenterhooks the morning of the announcement, which kicks off prize-season here in CanLitLand. And then I wasn’t on the list. It felt crushing, but I coped, and pretty soon I felt better. But it was kind of a relief, this year, not to have that pressure of waiting and wondering and then coping and forging onward. A year from now, I’ll be going through this all over again. I can’t even ask the question: should literary prizes matter so much? One hopes a deserving book finds its readers no matter what, but the prizes do help focus attention, especially on books that might go otherwise overlooked.

I want to congratulate everyone on the list — and also hug everyone not on the list, especially those who it seemed might find their way there. One small observation: there are 13 writers on the list, and 4 are women. I wonder about that. And then I observe that the jury is made up of two Canadian women (Esi Edugyan and Margaret Atwood) and one American man (Jonathan Lethem). So, who knows. I realize that’s not a profound conclusion, but I haven’t got one.

One more thing: looking over this list of authors, I notice how many are of my own generation, or just a little older than me. Makes me realize that “the establishment” is fluid. The list also reinforces my sense that CanLitLand is about the size of a neighbourhood, and that I’ve found it a lovely place to dwell. Despite the pressure and anxiety around prize lists, I’m looking forward to having a new book out next fall, because it’s a reason to travel and meet other writers, and that’s my favourite part of living in CanLitLand.

I woke up without a headache this morning. I’ve been sitting at my desk for over an hour, and I still have no headache. This feels worth celebrating! Perhaps with a sunshiny walk: I saw the physio yesterday, and he said I could try a half hour walk once or twice a day. He also did acupuncture, and I swear it helped. As yesterday afternoon turned to evening, it felt like the fog was lifting.

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I cut this lad’s hair yesterday outside in the backyard. I’m trying to remember when I became an “expert” haircutter, and I think it was as a teen, when I simply insisted that I knew what I was doing, and my mother let me experiment on my younger siblings, who suffered some occasionally unflattering cuts as a result. (Edna, please forgive me that bowl cut?) But some of the cuts actually turned out, cementing my “expert” status! (Or, more accurately, my delusions of expertise.) I remember giving my mother a brilliant haircut right before her high school reunion. In turn, this anecdote should give you a succinct understanding of who my mother is: a woman who would let her teenaged daughter give her a haircut right before her own high school reunion!!! She trusted it would work out, you see. That’s pretty awesome mothering, in my opinion.

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Stripes! We should have done stripes just like these! This girl had her second gymnastics class yesterday evening. Flushed and happy afterward, she wondered whether she could take more than one class a week. “I might have found my special thing, Mom!” (She’s been terribly worried because her siblings all have their “special things” that they love to do, soccer, mainly, while she’s dabbled in, but never loved, quite a few activities including dance and tennis.)

I tried to ease her anxiety by explaining that we may discover many special things that interest us deeply at different times in our life, and that experimenting is a good thing, but I’m to blame for putting the anxiety in her head in the first place, by suggesting that we all have “special things.” I meant to encourage her to explore her interests, but instead I planted a seed of worry. Parenting. Try, fail, try again, fail better.

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One of this girl’s “special things” started yesterday evening, and we were both really excited to get the season underway. Swim team! Last fall, she was a novice who couldn’t do a flip turn or a start dive, and now she seems like a veteran. Here’s a thought. A sign that something may be our “special thing” is that we return to it with excitement, enthusiasm, and commitment, even when it’s no longer new. Even when we already have a sense of what to expect from ourselves. Even when we’re acquainted with our limits, and know our own strengths and weaknesses. If, even then, we want to participate and keep learning and stretching and growing, then we’ve landed on something special.

Good things

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I like to note what’s working for our family at any given time, even though this is bound to change.

Piano practice: What’s working is to tailor a small reward system to each individual child. Albus earns screen time following piano practice. Fooey puts a sticker on her school calendar every time she practices, and earns small rewards (books or crafts) for every twenty practices. AppleApple likes to play the piano and doesn’t like keeping track of things, so she doesn’t want or need a reward.
I’ve put a dishwasher emptying schedule on the chalkboard. The three eldest take turns unloading, and put a check mark beside their name each time. This helps balance it out on days when one child can’t take his or her turn. No fighting over who has done it more often. CJ is too small to unload the dishwasher, so his job is to the water the plants every few days. He gets a checkmark too.
The laundry is an ongoing issue for me, for which I seem to have less and less patience. Since the bed bug situation began, I’ve been running everything through the drier as a precaution. A pattern has taken hold: the laundry gets washed, dried, then left for days sitting crumpled in baskets until I finally undertake the task of folding and distributing it. This does not make me happy. Last night, while I was at class, AppleApple and CJ spent an hour folding and distributing laundry: they made it into a game, apparently. This makes me very happy.
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this is my office, with bonus points to anyone who can actually find it, or move that duct-tape-covered chair
Everyone was waiting up to hear about my first class last night.
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this is my echoing classroom
I can report that the classroom is not an ideal workshopping space, and I’m hoping to get the class moved. I can also report that that my concussion symptoms did not feel worse after teaching for three hours, for which I am more than grateful, I am deeply relieved.
I woke this morning feeling better relative to every other day this week.
A friend sent me a link to Tabatha Southey’s reflection on her own experience with concussion. Given that it’s Tabatha Southey, it’s very funny, and also comforting: I relate to the feeling of disassociation she describes, and her inclination to start crying just about whenever. I am not a crier, generally speaking, yet I’ve found myself slipping easily into tears. (Parking ticket? Tears! Children holding hands on the way to school? Tears! Someone “hates” the supper I’ve made? Tears!) It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, though that may be my disassociative self talking. Nothing seems like a bad thing, really, which makes life very liveable.
But I look forward to exiting this fog. I really do.
It worries me to think of my brain being bruised. It worries me to consider bruised the part of me that I rely on for judgement and self-critique and sensible advice and the ability to focus intensely. It’s given me a whole new perspective on injury and fitness, and also on the idea of pushing beyond one’s limits. I can push my muscles beyond what seem to be their limits, and I trust my body’s capacity for endurance, but it never occurred to me that I might have to extend the idea of physical limits to my brain. It doesn’t seem the same, to me, as a hip injury or an ankle sprain: I wouldn’t shy away from activities that might re-injure those body parts, but would I risk re-injuring my head? I don’t think so. My head is my livelihood.
A few more good things, before I sign off: my kids like to read the newspaper, comics and obituaries. I know it’s off-beat, but I gravitate toward the obituaries, too: all those stories, the attempted summing up of all those lives. Here is AppleApple, before leaving for school this morning: “Mom, you have to read today’s obituary about a nun who was 109 years old!” That makes me happy, too.
And I’m oddly happy living with my dresser drawers emptied out and the majority of my clothing temporarily stored in giant plastic bags (a bed bug precaution). I have a tiny rotation of clothes available, all are clothes I like wearing, and the lack of choice every morning is a peaceable thing. I may never go back to full drawers again.
Finally, I’m very happy with the random tasks that got accomplished over the summer. The following messy places got thoroughly cleaned and organized: the fridge (!!), the art table and accompanying bins and shelves (why do we have so many art supplies?), the children’s rooms and their bookshelves, the bathroom cabinets, the swim stuff, the bins of gift bags in the attic (I know, you wouldn’t think that’s much, but it felt like an accomplishment), and my home office. My office, with its tidy new filing box, makes me especially happy.

Oh, and one more good thing! Here’s the link to the official announcement in Quill & Quire about Girl Runner.

Let the scheduling begin …

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ALBUS Grade seven, new school, French immersion, with lots of clubs and teams to join (looking forward to seeing what he’ll gravitate toward). Rep soccer: tryouts for next season start Sept. 21, with a commitment of 1-2 practices a week, plus skills (Kevin likely to coach). Piano: weekly lessons plus practice time. Passed Rookie Patrol this summer, so he’s free from swim lessons til next summer (that was our deal).

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APPLE-APPLE Grade six, enrichment program (lots of homework). Rep soccer: tryouts for next season start Sept. 21, with a commitment of 2-3 practices a week, plus skills, plus games. Swim team: six practices a week, including at 5:30 AM, Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus monthly meets (good thing I’m already comfortable rising early; too bad she’s not!). Piano: weekly lessons plus practice time. Horse riding lessons: what she wants to spend her summer babysitting money on, if she can find the time to squeeze one more thing in!

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FOOEY Grade three, French immersion. Will walk to and from school, and be in charge of her brother one way. Beginner gymnastics (her choice). Weekly piano lessons plus practice time (my choice). Swim lessons (maybe). Indoor house league soccer (probably, especially if Kevin coaches). Oodles of time with friends (my prediction).

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CJ Senior kindergarten: full days, every day. Plans to walk to school with Fooey and ride the bus home. Early childhood music, weekly. Swim lessons (probably). Indoor soccer (definitely, and Kevin will coach).

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COACH KEVIN Soccer, soccer, soccer, and more soccer. Well, what did you expect? Plus work, all day, every day, with occasional weekend training sessions. Oh, and late-night hockey (almost forgot about that!). Making school lunches (bless him) and breakfast smoothies.

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CARRIE Teaching Thursday evenings, 6-9. Writing daily, 9-3ish. Early morning exercise: weights, spin, running, swimming, yoga. Napping (often). Cooking supper (in harried fashion). Laundry. Driving children to activities and making carpool and carshare arrangements. Preparing weekly schedules to maintain all-family sanity. Readings (here and there). Indoor soccer (maybe). Poetry book club, monthly.

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SUZI AND DJ Walks (twice daily). Naps (in office). Food (twice daily, plus treats).

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ALL FAMILY (Couldn’t find a photo that included me, too.) Family skating/hockey, weekly, organized by Kevin. Bedtime reading (chapter books, out loud), as often as possible. Also considering: church (occasionally), supper invitations to friends and family (must make time for this!), and planning a trip together.

Exciting! New! Upcoming! Forthcoming! Woot!

credit N. Forde
photo credit: Nancy Forde

So, this fall is shaping up to be very writerly and literary, with plenty of events and launches to look forward to, in addition to which I’m excited about a few other things too and I’ve decided to tell you about the whole kit and kaboodle.

Thursday, Sept. 5: Mark your calendars and come if you can. I’ll be reading at the Starlight in Waterloo for the Eden Mills Writers Festival, and here’s the lineup, musical and otherwise: Jim Guthrie, Bidiniband, and I Am Robot And Proud, with readings by Dave Bidini and me. Tickets $14, doors open at 8pm.

Thursday, Sept. 12: Think me good thoughts from 6-9pm! I’ll be teaching my first official creative writing class.

Friday, Sept. 13: It’s the launch of Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding, at 323 Richmond St. E., Toronto. I’ve got an essay in this anthology, and will be presenting my comical/tragical breastfeeding stories along with Sarah Campbell, Rachel Epp Buller, and Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This. Tickets $20, 8-11pm, with book included, plus wine and munchies.

Satuday, Sept. 21: I’m tentatively booked to read at Word on the Street in Kitchener from my essay published in this summer’s New Quarterly (and also in the brand-new anthology How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting, which will be hot off the presses). 4-5pm at the Walper Hotel. Free.

Sometime in late September/early October: I’ve been invited to doula (offer labour support) for my brother and sister-in-law, who are expecting their first baby. I’m so excited. Anyone else giving birth and wanting support? Consider me. For real. I also take excellent birth photos.

Thursday, Oct. 3: It’s the launch party for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenting, and Loss. I’ll be reading from my essay in the collection, but you can also get a sneak preview of it in this summer’s edition of The New Quarterly. The launch is being held in conjunction with The New Quarterly, at their own launch of this year’s Wild Writers Festival. Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo. Free! Doors open at 7:30pm.

Saturday, Oct. 5: Run for the Toad! This will be my third year racing the 25km trail run. I’ve nursed several soccer injuries this summer, first the ankle, now the head injury, which have cut into training time, so I think this time around I’ll simply celebrate being there and doing my best to complete the course.

Saturday, Nov. 9: Wild Writers Festival! Do mark your calendars for this event, held right here in Waterloo, and now in its seccond year. Last year’s festival was wonderful, and this year I’ve been asked to lead a panel of amazing fiction writers. Visit the website for more details (the festival runs from Nov. 8-10).

And that’s all for now, folks.

Where mom-at-home meets working-mom, part two

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Hi there. For some reason this old blog post, titled “Where mom-at-home meets working-mom” has gotten a ton of hits this week, so I went back to re-read it, and found myself entirely drawn in to the conversation (if you go to read it, too, definitely read through the comments).

It was originally written in October, 2011: nearly two years ago.

I was asking myself some tough questions.

**When I unpeel myself from them [my kids], who am I? **Who am I outside this home? And the question I’m most scared of, the one I really want to ask: **How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at-home?

It’s funny how these questions have answered themselves. The good fortune of having The Juliet Stories recognized danced me outside of the house, and unpeeled me from them. And it turns out that the answer to those questions is: I’m pretty much exactly the same person, except in nicer clothes (maybe: ask my stylish daughter).

What about this question: How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at home?

Now there’s a tougher one. Clearly, my career has developed in the past two years. I have publishing contracts for two new books, essays in three upcoming anthologies, and a new teaching job. I field regular invitations to do readings and host literary events. That said, it’s not a career that involves full-time hours and the corresponding full-time pay. It’s a pretty insecure career, built around a constant flow of push and energy that must be generated by me alone. Funny, kind of sounds like parenting. Turns out that my working self is not all that removed from my mom-at-home self. Both roles have developed and changed, but it’s not like one cancels out the other. Maybe my original question framed it wrong: it’s not either/or. How could it be?

What’s gotten cancelled out is other things I didn’t expect. I miss my playgroup, meeting up with other women once a week — the regular, routine warmth and connection that I have yet to replace. I rarely bake anymore, and haven’t canned a thing this summer; probably won’t. I don’t have the energy, even if I had the time. We now have a dishwasher and I drive much more than I’d like to, ferrying older children to extra-curriculars. I’m alone a lot, which I relish and appreciate (it is essential to my work), even while missing contact that can’t be replaced by social media. Oddly, the thing I thought I’d miss — full-on time with my children — I don’t, because, as it turns out, we still share a ton of activities, scheduled and unscheduled. You never stop being a parent, no matter what else you might be doing.

But here’s a confession: this past winter, I tried to find a traditional job. You know, a job-job. This is an insurance town, so most of the openings were inside insurance companies. We were going through a tough financial spell, and my writing career had never seemed more risky and indulgent. I sent out a dozen resumes. I received one reply. ONE. It was a no-thank-you, but I was grateful even for that. The worst thing about the experience was discovering that I wasn’t even qualified for jobs I didn’t want, let alone jobs I did. Thankfully, we got through the very bad month and the slightly-less-bad next month, and our fortunes steadily improved again. But the fear lingers: that if my family were to need me to find a job-job, to keep us afloat, I would be useless as tits on a bull, as my mother-in-law would say.

It’s been a decade since the famous (infamous?) “Opt-out revolution” article was published, interviewing women who’d given up promising careers to become stay-at-home moms. I’m not sure I gave up a promising career when I became a stay-at-home mom at the age of 26, but I had recently been promoted, and the opportunity to advance and develop within my chosen field of media / publishing / editing / journalism was there. I can’t remember whether I related to the women in the original article, but I remember thinking it was annoying, setting up this dichotomy between women, making it so either/or. Aren’t we all in this together, I thought?

I also thought, secretly, quietly, that there would be time for everything, and I didn’t appreciate being told that one choice might disadvantage me in another area of my life.

Recently, a follow-up article was published on those same “opt-out” women interviewed a decade ago: what had happened to them? (“The opt-out generation wants back in.”) Well, the economy had happened to them (all were American). Most had gone back to work, whether they wanted to or not; most had found it difficult to re-start their careers, and many had taken jobs that were below where they had been or could have been. Those whose marriages had ended were particularly disadvantaged and struggling. Few, however, expressed regret about their original choice. One woman struck me particularly — she had been in a traditional media job (like me), and found it virtually impossible to find work in a much-changed industry. The article ends with her landing an exciting job, after searching for several years, but at much less pay than she would have earned a decade before, only to have the project shut down six weeks later, and everyone let go. She was back to square one.

Let me tell you, I sure related to that article with a pang of recognition. Yet, I can’t feel regret, either. Because there are other interesting questions posed in my post, two years ago, questions that seem at least as significant, and more mysterious. I can’t answer them, especially the last one, but that’s why they’re so fascinating.

**Where am I heading, at my breakneck pace? **What am I failing to stop for? **What if I can’t squeeze every fascinating everything in? **What matters? **Will I always be so impatient? So goal-oriented? **Can I be both ambitious and content, or do those two states of mind cancel each other out? 

Because it isn’t all about money, is it? If I look directly into my fear, and stare over the precipice of what would happen to my family were we thrown into financial crisis, and it were suddenly up to me alone to support us, I see many possibilities beyond disaster. I see family and friends. I see lifestyle changes and probably a lot of creative improvisation. I see a web of connections. We’re not without resources — I’m not without resources. That’s what I see, two years on, despite my recent experience of hunting for jobs I didn’t want and for which I was not qualified.

Because, I see, too, that I am already qualified for other jobs — ones I do want. This work might not offer the same security and stability, but maybe that just keeps me a step closer to reality. Stability is an illusion anyway, as we all secretly know.

It’s a gift to be doing what I love. I love being a mother. I love writing. I love thinking things through. My hope for myself, now and future, is that every time I doubt or question, I return to this: gratitude.

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