Category: Work

Reading for clues

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I’ve been paying attention to my reading habits more closely this year, and I’ve been surprised by what draws me, by what I find my appetite craving. In children’s literature, it’s the classics that pull me in, even on the millionth read. I’ve also enjoyed without reservation reading fiction by men, this year (which, although I haven’t deliberately avoided in my long reading life, seems anomalous somehow). And I’ve been pulled, relentlessly, to non-fiction, especially memoir.

I enjoy a variety of styles, and often stand back to admire the craft involved in, say, a light and amusing “easy” read, as much as in a book that is complex and innovative. Sometimes I want to be entertained, pure and simple. Sometimes I long to be challenged, or to gaze in awe and wonder. The lightness or darkness of a book’s subject matter or intellectual heft does not matter greatly to me. My taste is broad.

I don’t read idly, however. I read professionally. I really enjoy this aspect of my reading life. It’s hugely energizing and inspiring.

Always, always, as I read, I look for clues. I read to discover how to write better — how to write what I would want to read. And what I want to read is a book that connects.

Here’s another way of putting it: I want to want to keep reading.

The books I love are not a chore. They do not bore.

I’ve observed that certain issues get in the way of my pleasure. Some are fixable, some perhaps not. Lazy copy editing is troubling and very fixable. Laziness in general is troubling. If I’m mentally editing out unnecessary passages, paragraphs, or stray words, it’s going to cause me to stumble in my enjoyment. I can forgive a story an enormous flaw, because I truly believe that sometimes stories are bettered by their flaws. (Consider, for example, Little Women, and Jo never getting together with Laurie, instead marrying that shambling professor who, despite Louisa May Alcott’s valiant attempts to tell the reader how much we should love him too, simply cannot measure up to what might have been — that is a flaw that doesn’t ruin the the reading experience, but keeps it going in the imagination ever after.) But I can’t excuse the lazy flaw, the needed-another-draft, the published-too-soon flaw.

A writer who works, that gives me pleasure.

The evidence of a writer’s work, craft, and practice comes across clearly, to me, in a book’s structural and narrative coherence and imagination. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s not brought about by the kind of writing people imagine writers to be doing: the fevered, drunken, mad creative flurry whose allure appeals in adolescence and fades sharply thereafter. I outgrew it too many years ago now to remember, without some effort, why I ever found it appealing (which I did, and which many aspiring writers/artists do).

What I admire now is the invisible work behind the seemingly effortless offering. Brilliant, I think. And also, thank you. Thank you for your work!

I’m reading two works of non-fiction right now (yes, simultaneously). One I’m enjoying enormously. The other, not so much. The comparison is not entirely fair, as comparisons never are, but there it is.

The one I’m adoring and rationing out while wanting to devour is The Books of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon, a memoir that defies easy description because it is about matters moral, ethical, disturbing, and deeply enlightening. The one I just finished, hurrying because I wanted the essays to end, please, is Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, a memoir on spirituality that felt sloppy, incomplete, and, yes, that dreaded word, lazy. It was a book that seemed to want to give me advice. It told me what to think, rather than opened me to new thoughts. Hemon is telling stories. Lamott distracts with anecdotes. Stories are puzzles that go deep and don’t necessarily tell us what to believe, but instead ask us what we do believe and why, and we wonder how we got to where we are and whether we might change, and how. Where does an anecdote take us? Back to the writer herself, who sure as heck doesn’t want us to forget she’s there. Be brave enough to get out of the way, I wanted to tell Lamott, and let your stories speak for themselves.

I don’t think this necessarily divides along gender lines, although I’ll admit it troubles me slightly that the books I’ve been loving this year have mostly been by men. I don’t know why that is, and there may be no conclusions to be drawn. But here’s what I’m learning from my reading this year: I want to get out of the way when I write, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction. I want, also, to connect. And I do not think those ideas stand in opposition.

Be here now

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on Birthday Eve, still eleven years old
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on Birthday Morn, twelve times ’round the sun

I’m feeling compelled to sum up this month, even though it’s not quite over. It’s been such a month, and I’ve been unable to share some of the crucial details of its ups and downs and whirling arounds, which has forced me into awkward positions on this blog, made me into something of a contortionist. My ambiguity has caused a few friends to contact me with concern, wondering if all is well.

Well, all is well. And I don’t mean that in a Rob Ford way, whistling past the suddenly emptied offices of his communications team.

It’s been a good month.

It’s been a good month, but I won’t pretend it’s been easy. Decision-making is never easy, even when one is making decisions about excessively positive things, opportunities one has called out for, and hoped for, and pursued with determination. As I wrote in an earlier post, the doors are open. An open door is a blessing, and I feel blessed to be welcomed to enter.

But I have come to recognize, also, this month, that I can’t walk through every open door, not at the same time. I may contain multiplicities, but I am only one. I can only be in one place at a time. (I know you already knew that, but it’s taken me some convincing.) I am mother to four children. I am a writer. I would like to become a midwife. All those doors are open for me, right now. And I feel blessed. You, however, have probably already jumped ahead to the very obvious question that I somehow managed to avoid throughout this whole process: You are probably asking, okay, Carrie, that’s wonderful and all, but how, exactly, do you plan to go to school full-time, remain involved in your children’s busy lives, and continue to write?

Somehow, I thought I could do it all. I wasn’t going to not do some of it, oh no, I was going to do it all.

Magical thinking, perhaps. I am the sort of person who thrives on juggling responsibilities. Quietly, I told myself I could set aside the writing for the summer months. I did not need to attend so many soccer games and swim meets. We could get a dishwasher. The kids could learn to cook. Quietly, I thought, bring on the challenge.

But then the doors opened, all at once.

And suddenly I had to confront my own limitations — of time and of energy. I had to ask myself: what am I prepared to sacrifice? And I had to accept that now is not the right time to become a midwife. That is a hard sentence to write, and it’s taken me all month to carry myself toward accepting what I’m realistically capable of, right now.

For a good part of the month, I thought that this was an existential question about midwifery versus writing. Do I want to be a midwife or a writer? Well, the fact is, I’d like to be both, and I still believe it’s possible. I am already a writer, married to it for better or for worse and enjoying a happy stretch of career momentum right now. And I’m grateful to midwifery for being a career that does not discriminate against age: expect me to apply again sometime in the next decade, as my children grow up and get their driver’s licences and learn how to cook. No, what I’ve come around to recognizing is that this is not a question about midwifery versus writing. It’s not even, really, a question. It’s about being where I’m at, right now. And right now I have four children in the thick of their young and developing lives, and I want to be at the soccer games and swim meets. The shortened work day might drive me crazy sometimes, but I want to be here after school to gather them in, to follow up and dig around and take care of their lives in this very hands-on way. Juggle and spin it however I like, I can’t commute to another city for school and be here for this now that won’t always be.

How fortunate that I have an office, here, that I have quiet space to work, solitary time that is sandwiched on either side by frenetic activity and demands. I even have time to run and play soccer myself, to cook from scratch, see friends, and go on the occasional field trip. I go to bed done, and I sleep well at night.

I’d still love to doula at friends’ births.

I’d still like the kids to learn how to cook.

And we’re getting that dishwasher anyway — on Thursday, in fact.

When the time is right, I still hope to become a midwife.

But for now, my heart is full with the life that is all around me, right here, right now.

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Here’s a poem that wrapped itself around me a few days ago, coming from a book of essays I’m reading by Anne Lamott, called Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.

“Late Fragment,” by Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Yes and no

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Woke up early to run this morning, and woke up my eldest girl too. She wasn’t going for a run. Nope: science project due today, with a few finishing touches to complete: framing text and photos and placing them on her backboard. “Herbal Medicine.” She even prepared her own Garlic Tincture for the project. She left for school looking proud and happy and DONE! That is a good feeling.

She didn’t get a nap, but I did. Thankfully. Doing dishes at 10 o’clock at night is not conducive to early morning exercise.

I drifted down into sleep thinking about this article that’s going around called “Creative People Say No.” According to the piece, a signficant proportion of creative people say no to things they consider distractions in order to get their work done. The article irritated me. Why? Do I disagree? Do I just dislike saying no?

I don’t disagree, in fact. I know the time it takes to complete a project. The quality of that time matters, too. If you’re going deep, you need to sink down slowly, stay under, and not be presumptively yanked out. (Being presumptively yanked out seems the very definition of parenting, frankly.) I fight for my time, and resent when it’s taken away. In fact, I probably do say no quite often. When I’m deep inside a project I believe it wise and wholesome and productive to say no to the following major distractions: Facebook, Twitter, email.

But there are many things I cannot say no to.

I can’t say no to the dishes, no to the science fair project, no to the sick child, no to the solo parenting weekend due to Kevin’s work, no to providing meals and clean clothes, no to walking the dogs, at least not all the time. And there are many things I don’t want to say no to, too. I want to see my kids play soccer and swim. I want to help them practice piano. I want to meet friends for lunch and early morning runs. I want to connect and be connected, and therefore I say yes.

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Reading that article gave me a sense of panic, I suspect. Given all these things I can’t say no to, how can I possibly create? But I do! I do create. There is more than a smack of privilege to this whole “saying no” thing, an assumption that a creative person owes to his or her art an aloof and introverted life. 
That actually doesn’t work very well for me.

That said … how different would my life look if I worked in a traditional full-time job, if my office were not in my home? What would I have the privilege of saying no to, under those circumstances? We might have a dishwasher that the kids could load and unload. Kevin might share sick kid duties. Our meals might be less from scratch, or more from the crockpot. Then again, I might not be able to meet friends for lunch quite so easily.

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Kevin and I are thinking about these details quite a lot right now, imagining sharing the roles at home and at work more evenly, imagining our lives shifted slightly, again, to accommodate me stepping even more fully into work, and him stepping even more fully into home. I say yes a lot, but I’ll tell you, I would happily say no to the dishes.

The suddenness of Spring

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On May 6th, eighteen years ago, I met Kevin in circumstances that do not bear blogging about but which were, I assure you, youthful and spontaneous and highly unlikely to lead to marriage, children, home-ownership, and a stable future. But that’s what happened.

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I love that we met at this time of year. It’s exactly when the leaves burst out overhead, when the fruit trees and magnolias bloom, when the forsythia blazes yellow. Today, just three days past the anniversary of when we met, and already that moment of fragility and show is transforming into something else. How can the blossoms already be falling off the branches? But they are. How can the pale green just-unfurled leaves be fattening into a canopy overhead? But they are. How does the world fill itself in with such lushness, seemingly overnight?

But it does.

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Yesterday, I proofread an essay that will be appearing in the next edition of The New Quarterly, and later this year in a collection of essays titled How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting. I hadn’t read the essay for several months and how heartening it was to discover its strength and solidity. I’ve had a thought about my long-pondered non-fiction project. I’ve decided that it will be a series of essays. This essay, for example, is called “Delivery,” and it’s about the year leading up to the birth of our fourth baby. But it’s also about grief and denial and love. I have my doubts about doing memoir. My life is not that interesting. But an essay elevates ordinary experience by connecting stories to universal themes, and a series of essays can add up to the portrait of a life in flux, which is about as memoir-ish as I’m likely ever to get. I don’t like writing The End. I don’t like considering the past Done. But I do love considering the past.

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The other project I’ve been working on this week is a tight plot synopsis for Girl Runner. This will help me down the road in edits. And it will help my agent pitch the story to a film agent. Sadly, unlike in books, there are no surprise endings in plot synopses. I have to give away all my secrets.

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In Blogland, however, the secrets will have to be kept some while longer. Thanks for your patience while we wait together.

All the doors thrown open

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woman watches spring

Writing a book can be a funny thing. Occasionally it feels like control has been unintentionally ceded to some other power: the original vision just doesn’t fit on the page. The character refuses to do what the writer has planned. This doesn’t happen all that often, but it can.

Writing a life, well, do we get to that? Do we get to write our own plotlines, choose who we will become? To some degree I strongly believe that the answer is yes. Right up until it seems to be out of our hands.
I’ve had a strange week. It’s been wild, it’s been wonderful.
What can I say? Well, not everything. Okay, frankly, not much. Hardly anything at all, in fact. And I apologize for being mysterious, and will let you know that the news that I cannot tell is good, and that it is writing-related.
You know that saying, It never rains but it pours?
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soccer coach, in reflection
Throw into the mix: Kevin away in Winnipeg, a mysterious allergic reaction that sent me to the doctor, solo parenting on the weekend, having to coach our youngest’s soccer team, and several more soccer games including my own on Sunday evening, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s been … overwhelming. 
Imagine me walking uptown on Saturday with my brood of children, running errands in the brilliant sunshine. I say, “Kids, I feel ten feet tall.” “But you’re short, Mom. We’re short people.” “I know. But I feel like I’m much taller than I actually am. I feel like I’m floating.”
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I have spent more than twenty years aiming myself toward this moment. More than twenty years working to accumulate the knowledge and skill to write books that people will want to read. More than twenty years of tenacity and, let’s admit it, almost obsessive effort, even against self-doubt and the rejection that comes to every creative person who opens herself to the world. And here I am, more than twenty years on, dropped into the perfect moment in which the universe says: What you wanted? Here it is.
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I am thankful

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all of these photos look even better viewed in full: click on them to see

I ran on Tuesday evening: 10 kilometres. I ran again on Wednesday morning with a friend: 8.8 kilometres. I ran again on Thursday evening, in a light rain: 10.5 kilometres. I ran again on Friday evening, in a wind that took the breath away, cursing with fury the weather: 7 kilometres. On that run, fist at sky, a grin broke across my face somewhere in the second kilometre. Running makes me happy, no matter how irritable my mood, no matter the weather. That’s when it came to me. I had run every day since the explosions at the Boston marathon. I hadn’t chosen to do it consciously.

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I have six more kilometres to run, and then I will have completed the marathon distance, spread over  six days rather than an afternoon.

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It is Sunday afternoon. I have one more indoor soccer game today. I’d like to shut the computer down and run those last six kilometres, but I also want to take time to process photos and to write. I am trying to train myself to be disciplined with my time. On Friday, for example, I had an hour alone in my office, the kids being home on a PD day. I forced myself to turn the hour toward my new manuscript, a children’s novel.

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Kevin is playing top forty dance music while he does the dishes.

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I took my camera with me this morning when I drove to pick up AppleApple from her swim practice. It was my third trip out already this morning, and I thought, let’s document where I spend so much of my time: inside a vehicle, driving these familiar roads. Seen through the lens, the landscape looks bleak, somehow, empty, under construction. I like the resulting photos. Processing them, with Kevin’s music in the background, has given me a curiously crushing happiness this noon, a demolished happiness, like the happiness I associate with being young, with being alive to a potential and possibility not quite defined but present, a streak of light, a flare of anticipation, excitement mingled with melancholy, premature nostalgia. Nostalgia for a moment already happening.

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This is the mood I’m in when I want to play the piano and sing.

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This is the mood I’m in when I want to write a new story.

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Or create photographs. It’s a happy mood. It’s a split-the-world-open mood. It doesn’t happen every day. I am thankful.

P.S. Just ran those last six kilometres. With love to all the long distance runners out there.

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