A good writing day is like manna, like heaven on earth, like a happy dream. You feel purposeful, adventurous, inspired. You’re carried along, you’re surprised and delighted by what you find.
But that’s not today.
Today’s revelation comes from a different place: Today was a slog.
You weren’t very happy with the bones of the story you’d laid out yesterday, and it felt insurmountable — the problems to overcome, the incoherent structure, the didactic tone, the clumsiness, the exposition. But you went ahead and tried, anyway, to dig into the story. To write.
And guess what! Note to self!: Even a writing day that feels like a slog is a glorious accomplishment. Maybe even more than the day that felt easy. Because you didn’t give up. Because you were kind to yourself. When you read over the ragged sentences, you didn’t say: this is crap! (Even if it was.) You said: this is a very rough draft. All drafts start out rough.
This is what a rough draft looks like.
This is a start. You start by telling the story to yourself.
Then you dig in, you get your hands dirty, you notice what’s alive and you go there and pay attention, and gradually these piles of bones begin to fit together, to fill out into a story that you can do something with.
Revise, play, revise, play.
It’s play, this process. Like playing imaginary games as a child, where there were rules but you were making them up as you went, and there were always more possibilities, depending on who or what drifted into the scene, and you got to get dressed up and be someone else, a changeable someone depending on what was needed, and you packed a snack, and you climbed a tree, and you sat up there, pretending till it seemed the world was yours to make and make up.
The slog is all of this. So don’t fear it, jump in.
Last week I attended live webinar sessions on publicity and marketing, hosted by Penguin Random House, and open to any PRH author. (Please don’t stop reading just because I said “webinar”!) My only expectation was that this would be outside my comfort zone; and that I needed to attempt to engage on this subject, and at least acknowledge the truth that to publish a book is to be called to champion that book. And let’s be frank: the call to personally champion and publicize one’s own book feels overwhelming. (A stat dropped during one of the sessions: over 200 books are published each week — that may be a US-specific stat, but the point remains. It’s a crowded marketplace. What’s a writer to do?)
First, I want to confess that I enjoyed the webinars a lot. (This may be a sign that a) I’m starved of peer-to-peer contact and b) must start inviting friends over again to the back yard shack — it’s been a long, cold winter!)
Second, the most practical advice I gleaned is to tailor your approach to your own interests, abilities, affinities. Also useful: if you’re using social media for publicity purposes do it like this: get on, post, get off. At one point, someone said “You’re looking at branding yourself for a clear trajectory long-term,” and I wrote in my notes (oh god, I have not done this well at all!), by which I meant having “a clear trajectory.” I won’t even touch the subject of branding, but the question that kept humming around my brain was: Is anyone going to ask what happens when you make yourself into a brand? (No one did, me included; honestly, it wasn’t the right forum for that question, if there is a right forum.)
Third, the sessions made clear that most successful writers get good at a bunch of things (podcasting, publishing a newsletter, posting videos on TikTok or streaming on Instagram Live, or teaching, speaking, etc.), and the books they publish are just one thread in a web of activities, built around their interests and expertise. Okay. But does this apply more aptly to writers of non-fiction: academics, public figures, chefs or doctors? Maybe; I observed that most of the best-selling authors profiled in these sessions were writing non-fiction. However, I think this approach can make sense for fiction writers too — if it builds and develops naturally.
Confession: I’m resistant to the idea of self-promotion. It feels self-serving, and I’m uncomfortable with that; further, it’s the part of the job that in the past drained my energy and ambition, filled me with dread and fear. Even writing this post is giving me twitches of shame. I sense myself needing to explain: everyone does it, it has to be done, they’re telling me I need to be good at this, I’m just trying to figure out how. Please forgive me, please don’t hate me.
That desire to be liked goes deep, but it’s not just that; I’ve been conditioned to believe, way down deep, that women who stand up and demand an audience aren’t just unlikeable, they’re vulnerable. These are deep fears. Drawing attention to myself, becoming a target, getting mired in ego, serving self not others, making claims that maybe can’t be met, over-stepping, saying the wrong thing, getting too comfortable and getting knocked down … so many fears. But here’s what I know: anytime I approach a problem or a goal from a place of fear, I get knotted up, confused, entangled, and overwhelmed.
There is another way, a different approach: to come from a place of clarity, grounded, focused on the goal, attuned to changing contexts, curious, open to learning, and connected to the source of my own values and purpose. Picture a tree with deep roots, branches moving, changing with the seasons. (There’s my vision for a clear long-term trajectory!)
Here’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m going to accept my own challenge, and begin this marketing/publicity exploration from a place of curiosity, by asking:
What resources are already available to me? What am I already practiced at doing? What do I already know?
What would I like to learn or try out? What am I curious about?
Who is with me on this path? Who are my collaborators, mentors, friends and peers? Where do we meet?
What compelled me to write this book, and why does it matter so much to me? What themes and interests are woven into this book that connect with my world and perhaps also with yours?
Answers (musings, reflections, wonderings, and likely more questions), coming soon.
PS I’ve been signing up for more live online events, and I’ve noticed that it’s the live part that works. Has anyone else found this too? Even with my microphone and camera off, it feels like I’m part of something — an audience member, a participant, engaged, ever so slightly necessary to the proceedings; pre-recorded doesn’t compare. (Then again, neither does live in-person, but we take what we can get right now!)
Truth is, I have too much to say and too little, at once.
I haven’t been doing nothing, though it can feel like it. I’ve composed and submitted two grant applications, I’ve revised a new essay that’s been accepted for publication, I’ve written new material, I’ve read some good books (The Past, by Tessa Hadley and The Cold Millions, by Jess Walters), I’ve worked on projects close to my heart. I’ve volunteered my time, I’ve earned next to nothing (okay, nothing), I’ve done a shit-ton of yoga (shout-out to my friend Kasia’s brilliant life-saving kundalini classes, a source anyone can now tap into as they’re all online), I’ve watched a lot of Murdoch, plus, with other family members: All Creatures Great and Small, Call My Agent, and The Bureau. I’ve cooked some decent meals, mostly vegetarian; more accurately, I’ve cooked a lot of meals, decent or otherwise. I’ve tried. I’ve cleaned the kitchen. Again and again.
I’ve showered almost every day. My hair keeps growing. Somehow, I’m getting pimples and developing jowls. I’ve played piano (mostly Bach), and drawn cartoons (but I’ve given up the latter, at least temporarily, because it was starting to feel more like a chore than a joy). I’ve reached out to friends. I’ve gone quiet. Reached out again. I’ve watched two of my kids return to school. I’ve upgraded our mask collection. I’ve ordered new tea towels, another pair of sweatpants, and I’ve signed up for two summer CSAs.
I’ve gone for walks, some long, some really short. I’ve laid on my studio floor in the dark. I’ve tried out scented candles. I’ve set a Tuesday morning standing date with my Grandma, who lives in Indiana, on Zoom. I’ve avoided looking at myself on Zoom. I’ve taken copious notes. I’ve drunk a shit-ton of tea (shout-out to my sister-in-law’s fabulous tea blends: I recommend most highly the Cosy Cottage Blend, Rose-Coloured Glasses, and Ginger Chew; and she’s got a sale on right now, too).
I’ve stretched. I’ve vacuumed (but only rarely). I’ve noticed the light changing and the changing shape of the moon in the sky. I’ve watched the trees fill with crows, hordes of crows rising, settling, cawing, skating on the wind in the middle of a snow storm. I’ve learned what a raccoon’s tracks look like. I’ve sprouted new plants from cuttings and hung them in windows, in pretty clay pots. I’ve asked a lot of questions about what I’m doing here on earth. I’ve settled on: this. At least for now.
Today was Kevin’s birthday. I picked up smoked salmon and bagels for a birthday brunch, and stopped by Mom’s on the way home to surprise her with a donut. She thought up the most lovely birthday surprise for Kevin — books delivered from Wordsworth. I wish my worries for her could be solved from within (myself, I mean). Looking at this drawing now, I can see exactly what I did wrong when drawing the stairs! It makes me happy to see it. Then I might see it differently when drawing stairs next time. (Chairs are another struggle …).
This drawing is based on the animation for Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,”which features tea cups. I sent it to my word group for today’s moment of pause, during our tea cleanse. What if our molecules could remember when we were one? This morning, on our church’s Zoom call, my older daughter spoke movingly, and it sparked something in others, and things felt, briefly, hopeful.
Ugh. I hate everything about this drawing (almost everything). I spent today working on the first of two grant applications — painful writing. I’m tired, but that’s not the problem. The problem is a chronic pain issue that flares from time to time; like now. I drew a sad and ugly figure staring blankly at her cellphone, and then began to add in other tiny versions of me, trying to help the blue woman, soothe her, sit with her, check in on her. Plus there are those weird green legs lying on the floor. The whole time I was drawing, it felt like an argument with myself.
While waiting at the back of a long line outside a lab, I saw a woman break down when it was her turn to enter the building, and nurses from inside came out to help; I was too far to figure out what exactly was happening. The woman in front of me, who had come on her lunch break, finally gave up and left, she said she couldn’t keep waiting and waiting. I thought of her, for some reason, while doing kundalini this evening; it’s so novel to speak to anyone outside my family. I hope she’ll get in quickly when she goes tomorrow morning.
I took notes at an X Page meeting on Zoom this afternoon to plan for the smooth running of our spring workshop (season 3!!). I looked crusty and ancient on the screen. CJ forgot to do his piano lesson (also online) because I was in the meeting and wasn’t available to remind him. Instead, he was watching soccer highlights with Kevin in the living-room!! He was very sad when he told me he’d forgotten, just before supper. I sent a message to apologize to his piano teacher and she offered to do a lesson with him tonight. After drawing this, I was glad I hadn’t quit the project on Monday. (My plan is to review month-by-month, rather than committing to a particular length of time in advance; I think I’ll know when it’s served its purpose.)
I’m doing a lot of kundalini this week. I’d gotten a half-start on this drawing just before this evening’s class started, and while meditating, I kept thinking about what I wanted it to express. I spent this afternoon continuing work on grant-writing for this project I’ve started with my Grandma. In this drawing, I’m a ghost in the room, a time-traveller, observing, imagining a scene from someone else’s life — which never happened, mind you — but now feels as though it is real (to me).
I asked my younger daughter if I could go with her on her lunchtime dog walk. I haven’t been out during daylight much this week. There was a big snow storm last night. My older daughter went out and shovelled out walk. I worked on grant applications and X Page stuff all day. Never napped, though the hope of a nap was what got me out of bed this morning. Too much sitting. More kundalini tonight.
This is a visualization of my word of the year — SOURCE. It’s a mysterious word. It points to being at the origin, and to being inexhaustible, I can return again and again, drink of it, seek it, it refreshes, restores. I had a vision during kundalini last night of SOURCE as eternity, as the place from which I came and to which I will return. It was soothing. Today, I’m weighing another volunteer opportunity that’s arisen. I like being asked to serve. I feel most at home when volunteering; and I miss that from my soccer coaching, for sure. But any commitment needs weighing. I won’t commit unless I’m all in.
Last night at dinner, I asked how everyone was doing right now. Our eldest said it’s fine, but it’s boring. Every day is busy, he said, and passes quickly, but it feels the same. And I agree. And therefore, I see the usefulness of this daily cartoon project is its ability to capture, succinctly, visible to the eye, proof of tiny fluctuations within the sameness.
- What felt good this month? It’s February 1st, and the beginning of January seems eons ago. I’m grateful to my cartoon journal entries for recording the emotional ups and downs — but especially the ups. Otherwise, I might forget that January was a productive writing month, for example, or that our family looked forward to fun activities, which brightened the overall dulling effect of our generally similar days. In January, I’ve started charting out daily/weekly aspirational goals in my notebook (a messy page of activities that I can check off): these include things I value but might not otherwise prioritize, like reaching out to friends and family, or reading, or playing piano. I’ve been giving myself permission, and even incentive (three cheers for reward sheets!), to follow through on aspirational goals that have little worldly value, but feed me in every other way: spiritually, creatively, and in relationship with others.
- What did you struggle with? Career stall-out; stasis. It helps that there’s been a spotlight in Canada on the plight of artists, including writers, during the pandemic; I’m not the only one with a pushed pub date, or other delays and disappointments. But here’s the thing: the struggle has felt surface level, ego-level. Underneath, I’m full of hope and belief in my writing direction, in the research I’m doing, and in nurturing this life-long habit of curiosity and exploration, no matter the outcome. Process interests me, rather endlessly. So how could I complain or worry, when I’m able to tick through that list of entertaining and enriching daily aspirational goals and activities?
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I have no idea. This question is impossible! I’m relieved that the US has a new president. That happened! I’m a month older than when we last checked, and I feel essentially the same in terms of goals, hopes, dreams, concerns. I waver between, it’s going to be okay, eventually, isn’t it, right?, and, be here now, that’s what matters. I live in the latter as often as possible.
- How did you take care of yourself? I’m trying to notice my irritating flaws (pretty easy to spot when confined in tight quarters with five others + dog), name them, and laugh at myself when I notice I’m going down one rabbit hole or another. Should it irritate me so much that Kevin leaves the cupboard doors open? Or that people let the dog out but never back in again?
- What would you most like to remember? That I can trust myself to make decisions that support those I love, and myself, even when the conversations are challenging.
- What do you need to let go of? Timelines. Control over timelines. The paralyzing idea that I’m losing time to this pandemic, that my life is suspended in some fundamental way; that as the months tick past and nothing changes, I’m aging past relevance. Whoa, I’ve named a lot of fears here. Now to let them go … I think the checklist of aspirational activities helps with the letting go: when I sit at the piano and play Bach, I don’t think, you are wasting time. I just sink into the moment and concentrate on what I’m making, and feeling, and hearing, and experiencing — time travel through music, connecting across the centuries with other minds and hands and ears. And these moments are always available, maybe even especially right now! I’ve only got to give myself over to them, and let go of my need to predict the future. (BTW, this is my favourite question, every time! It’s so cathartic to name the thing that needs letting go, often something that catches me by surprise. I highly recommend answering it for yourself, and all the better if you write it down.)
Onward into February!
PS Here’s a sample aspiration chart …
My most recent list of categories goes like this: cardio; yoga; get outside; stretch; extra exercise; piano; cartoon; nap; read; meditate + “Source” (my word of the year, 2021); write; transcribe; revise; research; grants; cook/bake; clean; orders; family time; friends; sibs/parents; fun; thankful; X page.